George Orwell, in his book, 1984, had introduced the concept of ‘Big Brother’, an entity which is constantly watching you. At the heart of the Pegasus controversy however, is the most insidious intrusion mankind has ever experienced at the hands of governments aided by technology. Big Brother is not just watching you, but also stealing everything which you considered to be your property in your private domain, and worse, probably bypassing statutory safeguards. The Pegasus spyware was engineered to hack and access all your devices and mine information and deliver it to a third party which can then be used to spy on the victims in real time. Big Brother is no longer a concept, it is a reality.
Even though many countries around the world have denounced the use of such hacking softwares, the authoritarian regimes like China have been silent. The reason for this can be seen in the fact that most of the 50,000 names snooped by hacking software indicate that it targets journalists, opposition political figures, lawyers, human rights activists and basically any person which can be of threat to ruling regimes. These facts brought forth worldwide condemnation and investigation in many democratic countries including the European Union where citizens were targeted for their information and data.
The software, which is sold by a company by the name of NSO, and as repeatedly mentioned by it and the Israeli government, the software is sold only to governments. However, several reports have been released of the software being used by the drug cartels in Latin America.
The Pegasus software is a threat to civil liberties, privacy, freedom of speech and expression, and democracy at large. The software makes it possible and easy for governments to convert democracies to virtual autocracies.
In this context, the Supreme Court of India stepped in to hear 12 petitions which sought an independent probe into the allegations which surfaced in the media about alleged unauthorized surveillance. One of the key observations that the court made was that national security cannot be acceptable reason for the courts to shy away from a deeper probe into the matter. In fact, the exact word of the honorable court has been that “a free pass every time the specter of ‘national security’ is raised.
In addition, the honorable court has setup a three-member committee that can probe the issue in-depth and hopefully get a full disclosure from the government. The committee includes Prof Naveen Kumar Chaudhary, Dean, National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar, Dr Prabhaharan P, Professor at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Kerala and Dr Ashwin Anil Gumaste, Institute Chair Associate Prof. IIT Bombay.
Concerns are raised that governments violating privacy is more harmful than big corporations violating privacy. Perhaps that may be so. However, all-pervasive digital era, perhaps the best way to preserve privacy is not put such information on a digital platform. Perhaps, the Pegasus case would trigger movement towards greater mindfulness of what is put on digital and what is kept out.