India’s Pegasus-Gate | By Dr Saba Sahar

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India’s Pegasus-Gate

GABRIEL Garcia Marquez famously told his biographer, “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life. ” It seems that Mr Modi governs India by this dictum.

According to a 28 January 2022 New York Times report titled “The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyber Weapon”, the Modi government acquired Pegasus software, as part of a USD two billion weapons deal from Israel in 2017.

Pegasus is a hacking software that can turn a phone into a 24/7 spying device. The malware has ability to infect iPhones and Android devices, extract messages, photos, emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.

Unauthorized surveillance in a democracy is an infringement of the privacy and fundamental rights of the citizens.

The use of weapons-grade spyware against its own citizens is a blot on India’s democratic credentials.

The Modi government has lied to the Indian public and has misled state institutions, including the Indian Supreme Court and Parliament.

These fresh revelations have sparked a political storm in New Delhi. The opposition has been up in arms after the publication of the NYT report and has demanded that the Modi government clarify the official position on the purchase of such surveillance technology in the Lok Sabha.

Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, in a tweet on 29 January2022, has proclaimed that “Modi Government 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 tapings.

This is treason. Modi Govt has committed treason”. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs denied any purchase of Israeli spyware back in 2019 and a similar denial was issued by IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who in 2021 had called the allegations a “sensational” attempt “to malign Indian democracy and its well-established institutions.

” After the publication of the NYT report, Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury demanded that “a privilege motion be initiated against the Minister of Information Technology for deliberately misleading the House on the Pegasus issue.”

More recently, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, denied having any information on the Pegasus deal.

While responding to a barrage of media questions, he dodged and deflected by stating that ‘the matter is now under investigation by a committee set up by the Supreme Court’.

Israeli reporter Ronen Bergman, who helped break the Pegasus story, has claimed that India violated the ‘End Use Agreement’ that it signed with the Israeli Ministry of Defence.

The agreement stipulated that Pegasus could only be used against terrorists and organized crime.

The Indian media outlet `The Wire’ reported in 2021 that around 160 Indians including politicians, opposition leaders, journalists, dissidents, industrialists, and human rights activists were spied on using Pegasus malware.

The list also includes high-profile targets in Pakistan, and the head of the Hurriyat Conference, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

This pattern of deception and deceit seems to be an integral part of Indian State policy: Canada-India Reactor Utility Services (CIRUS), a research reactor supplied by Canada to India in 1954 for peaceful purposes was used to produce weapons-grade plutonium for India’s 1974 Pokhran-1 codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha‘ nuclear test.

Similarly, India in an agreement with Pakistan in 1992 declared that it did not possess any chemical weapons but later signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993 as a possessor state.

Likewise, Indian claims of ‘surgical strikes’ within Pakistani territory have been exposed as duplicitous and spurious.

Furthermore, it has been documented that Pulwama was a false-flag operation conducted to bolster BJP`s electoral prospects in Indian general elections of 2019.

The report from the Brussels-based EU DisinfoLab in Dec 2020 further illustrates how India engages in a disinformation campaign against Pakistan.

A vast network of 265 coordinated fake local media outlets was used to plant fake stories that aimed to damage Pakistan’s reputation and standing internationally.

This intricate web of fake blogs and journalists was exposed as part of the investigation report entitled ‘Indian Chronicles’.

Pegasus is also employed by countries as a tool of cyber warfare. In 2019, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in a US court against NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance company, holding it responsible for a series of highly sophisticated cyber attacks.

Sabotage and espionage are tools of cyber warfare. India has been using these techniques against both Pakistan and China.

According to a June 2021 report of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) titled, “Cyber Capabilities and National Power: A Net Assessment’’, public statements by Indian officials and other open-source material indicate that India has developed relatively advanced offensive cyber capabilities focused on Pakistan.

The Indian Joint Doctrine of 2017 has identified cyber warfare as a component of hybrid warfare, which it described as a key element in the ‘current fifth-generation war’.

Nation-states are increasingly interpreting cyber attacks on their critical infrastructure as equivalent to a physical attack.

For instance, the United States in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) declared that cyber attacks on critical infrastructure will constitute a “non-nuclear strategic attack” and evoke a serious response of “sufficient magnitude to justify the use of a nuclear weapon”.

Pakistan’s cyber security policy announced in 2021 incorporates the element of cyber deterrence.

It declares that ‘a cyber attack on any institution of Pakistan will be considered as an act of aggression against national sovereignty and the state will defend itself with appropriate response measures.

India, therefore, has to be mindful that its misplaced zeal to harm its nuclear neighbours through cyber warfare could evoke a response it might not have imagined.

The Pegasus-Gate has demonstrated that the incumbent Hindu nationalist government in India uses similar tactics against its own political opponents and government functionaries as against its nuclear neighbours.

—The author is Associate Director at Centre for International Strategic Studies Sindh (CISSS).

 

 

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