WhatsApp, a social network software bought by Facebook for $16 billion in 2014, is soon supposed to give an explanation to the BJP-led Indian government how its vulnerability to the Pegasus spyware was not addressed.
Last week, Pegasus was in the news for ‘jailbreaking’ into noted Dalit activists, human rights advocates, and journalists in India. Pegasus is a spyware spawned by the NSO group in Israel which helps ‘lawful governments’ to get intelligence in their fight against terrorism, insurrection, etc.
Right now, Indian free speech champions, including the opposition Congress party, have been vociferous in demanding explanations from the government, following reports that the Home Ministry has directly or indirectly courted the services of Pegasus. This charge appears to be true. But, as ever, the point is not a dot, but a smudge.
The Citizen Lab is supported by, among others, Peter Thiel’s Palantir Technologies, another billion-dollar group. According to a Wikipedia note: ‘In 2014, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) awarded Palantir a $41 million contract to build and maintain a new intelligence system called Investigative Case Management (ICM) to track personal and criminal records of legal and illegal immigrants.’
Free speech champions, including the opposition Congress party, have been vociferous in demanding explanations from the government, following reports that the Home Ministry has directly or indirectly courted the services of Pegasus
Its clients include the CIA. Wikipedia quotes TechCrunch: “The US spy agencies also employed Palantir to connect databases across departments. Before this, most of the databases used by the CIA and FBI were siloed, forcing users to search each database individually. Now everything is linked together using Palantir.”
It is tempting to speculate how — even if only partially — a firm whose interests are co-terminus with those of the invasive and rights-breaking agencies like the CIA is championing the cause of free speech in India and perhaps elsewhere. It needs to be mentioned too that Palantir software was used to uncover China-based GhostNet, an espionage network surveilling among 103 countries, India. Just goes to show this stuff cuts across every which way.
That’s partly the international context of surveillance in which the Modi-led Indian government bought the services. It is very much possible that they used it to tap into the personal life — and therefore the political, the social media having shrunk the differences between the two — of activists. But, surely, this is not the first time?
Routinely, phones are tapped. Offices bugged. Individuals report against each other — and on themselves; the most personal moments are public. Except that when they report on themselves, they are always in the right; and a guaranteed way of being right is the social media-enabled role of the victim. If one is not a victim directly, one could still be blindly joining the brotherhood/sisterhood, basking in the reflected glory.
Guilty of the psychosis
The point one is trying to make is not in favour of surveillance. But surely one must, as explicated and documented so well by Shoshana Zuboff, in her book, ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, that as a society it is not easy for us to claim the moral high ground and pretend ourselves to be victims of surveillance when we have internalised it so much, but not guilty of the psychosis.
In the years following Stalin’s consolidation of power beginning with the 1930s to the years up to 1953 (when he died) and immediately after, the communism in practice was nothing if not a network of personal information with wife betraying husband, son his father, writer against writer; it was everybody calling out everyone else, naming, shaming, and punishing. It was surveillance — for the Soviet cause.
We have now merely digitised it and chosen to call the process of the pathological behaviour as selectively empowering and intrusive. Empowering when we do it. Intrusive when the Other does it. But the fact is we are nothing if not surveillance agents and victims at the same time. It is the norm, not the exception.
There is no free speech, post the smartphone. When one buys a cell, one is buying the idea that one is plugged into a hundred networks.
Only yesterday, I was speaking to someone on the phone about a trip to Alaska. Today I have had already three Alaska packages in my email. When I google Pegasus, as I did this morning, I get pop-ups of holiday packages. Someone is always listening, watching, each the other’s spy, each his own advertisement.
This is what we are — across borders. There is now a great homogeneity of human behaviour mutated and mentored by the surveillance technology we carry in our hands. It doesn’t require a Pegasus really. The wings of the mythical horse are spread everywhere.
My passwords, bank details, personal information, what the others think of me, what the others would like to think of me, everything is already available. We have volunteered to put it all out there. Only it is not for Stalin; but for free speech.
—C. P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.