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Democracy damaged! How Israel’s spyware may have undermined elections and our institutions

By Sanjay Kapoor
New Update

This story is not about India, any longer, but about all those countries where democracy has been subverted by a military grade spyware supplied by an Israel ruled by former PM, Netanyahu to friendly governments. This malware, ostensibly sold to fight terrorism, snooped and hacked into the mobile phones of civil society activists, journalists and political opponents. Bewilderingly, these countries did not just confine their surveilling ambitions to individuals within their borders, but also targeted politicians and heads of states of foreign countries like Presidents of France, Emmanuelle Macron and South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa or Pakistan’s PM, Imran Khan.

The big question that has got obfuscated in the deluge of millions of words that have been written after Amnesty International and Paris based NGO, Forbidden Stories, that released the data dump of 50,000 hacked phone numbers from 10 odd countries is - is the earlier Israeli government under Netanyahu complicit in this gargantuan surveillance scandal? And what was Israel offering its friends like India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

The dump of snooping details that France based NGO, Forbidden Stories released last month is largely of the years 2018-2019 when India was heading for parliamentary elections. The hacked phone included that of an Election Commissioner and the leader of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, who was spearheading a campaign against PM Modi for engaging in corruption while purchasing the expensive Rafale fighter jet from France.

Ironically, the French President Macron’s phone was also hacked through Pegasus - an act blamed on the Moroccans till now, but the truth is that the NSO or the Israelis would have heard whatever the French leader was discussing - even details on the Rafale deal. The big question that the Defense Minister of Israel Benny Gantz who has been mandated to mollify the French has to answer is whether they know more than what they claim to know.

These questions arise due to the mixed claims made by the Israeli maker of the spyware, Pegasus, where the company states that it had built safeguards including a scrutiny by Israel’s ministry of defense to prevent the spyware’s misuse. The detailed statement on the company's protection of human rights that was issued earlier in June 2021 is a painfully laborious exercise in trying to show how good the company is in preventing human rights abuse and how they lost millions of dollars turning down clients that had an egregious human rights record. Wonder who these clients truly were? After all, Pegasus has rightly been accused of penetrating the phones of some of those Editors - Jamal Khashoggi - and journalists- Cicilio Peneda Birto - who came to grief. Pegasus was found embedded in Khashoggi’s partner also. The slain Mexican journalist’s number was also found in the database, though not his phone.

Interestingly, the period that has come under the arc of the probe about Pegasus coincides with the coming of power of Narendra Modi. In 2014, Francisco Partners, owned and headed by an Indian, Depanjan Deb, bought NSO. What is not known is whether Indian government or the ruling BJP had anything to do with Francisco Partners. NSO was re-sold in 2019 to a London based private company, Novalpina, which is now facing liquidation.

This spyware, which has evolved to become zero-click - Pegasus no longer needs a person to click on an app to get into the phone - is reputed to leave no trace of its infiltration. However, Amnesty International, which has been demanding banning of these surveillance softwares, has a lab that is able to establish traces of its presence in the iPhone.

Interestingly, most of the hacking has taken place in iPhones, which prides itself for being the safest phone. Despite innumerable warnings by Facebook and its other offerings like the messenger platform, whatsapp, that the phone was vulnerable, Apple, for strange reasons never tried to prevent the malware from getting in their phones. This was when they knew that it was known that Pegasus was not just a listening software, but after getting into the device, it harvested emails, activated the microphone and camera, accessed the phonebook and could really strip all the elements of secrecy of the phone. This kind of hacking is banned under Indian law and that of other countries, but the government in Delhi, unlike in France, has kept silent.

The statements of the communication minister, the newly appointed Ashwini Vaishnav - ironically his phone had also been hacked in 2018 - did not deny that the government had not retained the software. The government is resisting any inquiry into the snooping affair. The opposition parties have brought the parliament to a standstill. The BJP government is hoping that its obduracy will see the wilting of the resistance of the opposition. The pugnacious CM of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who recently defeated the BJP at the hustings, is challenging this view. Her government set up a commission of inquiry under two retired judges to look into hacking by Pegasus malware. She is also using this issue of surveillance to forge unity amongst disparate opposition parties. This is a challenge to the government of Narendra Modi, which is pushing back in the only way they can - by brazening it.

Meanwhile, the media and civil society activists that have been particularly favored by the surveillers have taken the matter to the Supreme Court demanding an inquiry to ascertain who ordered the use of the malware and those who should be subjected to this intrusive watch. In 2018, the government of India had arrested some lawyers and academics for planning to assassinate Prime Minister Modi. One of the accused was an 84-year-old Jesuit Priest, Stan Swamy, who was put away under the draconian anti-terror law in which the arrestee cannot be released till the final acquittal. Those arrested under this law are not even given bail. Expectedly, Swamy died while in custody.

Names of many of those implicated were also found in the Pegasus dump. Some time back it was discovered by the lawyers of the incarcerated that files were planted in their laptops through the malware. The government prosecutors have refused to take cognizance of these serious allegations about files being planted, but if the Pegasus issue is allowed to be inquired then much of the dangerous games the government agencies play with civil society activists and journalists would come out in the open. What would also get known is whether elections were fixed by the malware too!


Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine and he is also the General Secretary of Editors Guild of India.