Indian government criticized over purchase of Pegasus spyware
Finsights Analyst Tanishya Kapila provides her take on the discovery that India’s government purchased Israeli spyware Pegasus.
It has recently come out that the Indian government led by Hindu Nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi purchased Pegasus software as part of their defence deal in 2017. The Pegasus software and missile system were seen as the centrepieces of the $2bn deal that occurred between India and Israel. The deal took place between India and Israel when the Prime Minister made his first trip to the country in 2017.
Pegasus software is a hacking software, or spyware, which is developed, marketed, and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli company NSO group. The software made the headlines in 2021 after an investigation was carried out by a global alliance of media outlets which showed how the software was being used by governments to spy on dissidents and journalists via their mobile phone. The software has also been allegedly used to spy on human rights activists and politicians. The NSO group does not disclose its client list, but it has been under a large amount of controversy. The Israeli government has distanced itself from the matter after the United States blacklisted the technology. Indian government denied buying this spyware which was allegedly used to infect phones of its opponents, rights activists, and journalists in India. Following all this controversy the chairman of the NSO group, Asher Levi, is stepping down after less than two years. He announced his resignation shortly after it was revealed that the local police had also purchased Pegasus.
These recent allegations have resulted in a political storm. The claims of the Indian government purchasing this software come ahead of the annual budget and days before five states vote to elect a new government.
India’s main opposition Congress party has accused the government of committing treason. Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted that “Modi govt bought Pegasus to spy on our primary democratic institutions, politicians and public. Govt functionaries, opposition leaders, armed forces, judiciary all were targeted by these phone tappings. This is treason.”
There have been concerns raised about whether the software is being provided to oppressive governments as government agencies cannot be trusted to do right by their citizens. The questions of why they need the information gained from hacking people’s phones and what they are doing with said information has been raised. Is the government using it to further their political stance? The Indian government have arguably crossed the line on what is morally and ethically right.
India’s supreme court has now ordered an inquiry to determine whether the government did actually use the surveillance software. An independent committee will be created to investigate this and if determined that they indeed used the software, further investigations will be undertaken to determine in what way it was used. The committee will be made up of three cybersecurity experts and a report will be submitted in two months.
The court has already criticised the lack of cooperation from the government to reveal, on the grounds of national security, any details of what the software was used for and why.
If the Indian government can get away with this how far will they go? And how can they be held accountable?