Dr Jumma Marri
The Pegasus spyware scandal which has burst forth on the international scene comes as another evidence of India’s continuing hybrid war against Pakistan.
Pegasus which has been created by Israeli surveillance company NSO Group for cyber surveillance is used by authoritarian governments around the world to spy on political opponents, journalists, activists, and government officials. The software can infiltrate iPhones and Androids, enabling the operator to record calls, retrieve photos, messages, and emails without the knowledge of the phone user.
The Israeli company has claimed that it only sells its software to those who want to use it against terrorists and criminals. But the reality on the ground is different. A massive data leak from its records shows its clients may have used it against targets who fall into neither of those categories. The leak contains the phone numbers of 50,000 individuals, and a forensic analysis of some devices has shown tell-tale traces of the Pegasus malware.
The extent of the use of Pegasus spyware was investigated by The Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde and other world news outlets who collaborated on an inquiry into a data leak. According to reports in the Washington Post and other Western newspapers, India is one of the 10 countries, which have been listed as clients of Israel’s NSO Group and its spyware.
These countries have been using Pegasus to hack smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists around the world. It has been confirmed by various sources that at least one number once used by Prime Minister Imran Khan was on the Indian list. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper has reported that several Pakistani officials, Kashmiri freedom fighters, Indian Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and an Indian Supreme Court judge were targeted.
Indian investigative news website The Wire has reported that 300 mobile phone numbers used in India — including those of government ministers, opposition politicians, journalists, scientists and rights activists — were on the list. The numbers included those of more than 40 Indian journalists from major publications such as the Hindustan Times, The Hindu and the Indian Express, as well as two founding editors of The Wire.
The Pegasus scam has been described as Modi’s Watergate moment and he has been asked to resign. Given the authoritarian and fascist policies of the BJP government under PM Narendra Modi which has a dark record of conducting cyber war against Pakistan, the Pegasus revelations have not come as a surprise.
Referring to the use of the Israeli spyware by India, the Pakistan Foreign Office has said in a statement that the world had seen the true face of the so-called Indian democracy, when the reports of EU Disinfo Lab, Indian Chronicle, surfaced earlier last year. The Foreign Office also called on the relevant United Nations bodies to probe into the revelations of India using Pegasus to spy on its opposition politicians, activists and journalists as well as global leaders, including Prime Minister Imran Khan.
As a Foreign Office spokesman put it, keeping a clandestine tab on dissenting voices is a long-standing ploy of the RSS-BJP regime in India to commit human rights atrocities in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) and peddle disinformation against Pakistan. India’s nefarious designs against Pakistan are not a secret. It is using all tricks in its bag to destabilise Pakistan. A short while ago, EU Disinfo Lab revealed how India used fake media houses and NGOs for years to lobby against Pakistan in Europe.
Clearly, India’s state-sponsored, continuing and widespread surveillance and spying operations constitute a flagrant breach of global norms of responsible state behaviour which must be brought to the notice of the international community.
In this context, the government has rightly decided to conduct a thorough investigation into India’s use of Pegasus malware against Prime Minister Imran Khan and take proper legal action to put India in the dock for its brazen attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty. The government should also devise a diplomatic-cum-legal strategy to raise the issue at various international forums including the UN and EU.
Spyware like Pegasus by violating the sanctity of inter-state relations poses a serious threat to world peace and order. It is especially dangerous when in the hands of extremist forces such as the present RSS-BJP combine in India. It can also be misused by hostile countries to spy on rivals triggering an endless war of cyber espionage and tensions among nations.
The fact that the list of phone numbers in the data leak is linked to individuals without any criminal record or terror links speaks volumes as to how this spyware is being abused. Given the gravity of the situation, it is important that the international community formulate new fail-safe protocols to regulate the manufacture, sale and use of such tools in order to protect human rights generally and prevent state-sponsored cyber espionage operations which, if left unchecked, can lead to unforeseen consequences.