Mobile scam
Pegasus can take over a phone, camera and microphone of the handset Image Credit: Pexels

Last week, one of the most sensational and disturbing stories was broken by a consortium of global media groups including The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde, Haartez and the Indian portal The Wire.

Spyware called Pegasus, sold by the Israeli NSO technology surveillance group, may have been used to snoop on thousands of government leaders, opposition figures, journalists, activists, scientists and even judges.

In India, the phones of at least 10 of those found on a list were scanned and came back with clear evidence of having been hacked or an attempted hack. There were about 50,000 phone numbers on the list, though not all may have been hacked.

Remember, this is no ordinary phone tapping, the likes of which we have seen for decades. This spyware can take over your phone, your camera, the microphone of the handset and essentially record everything you say and do, even in the privacy of the four walls of your home.

Global outrage

The scandal has caused outrage in other countries. France ordered an investigation within 24 hours of the story breaking after the personal telephone number of French President Emmanuel Macron showed up as a potential target. Israel’s defence minister went to

France this week where the Pegasus issue was high on the agenda, while Hungary’s government has also ordered a probe. But here in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has launched no investigation. Why? The NSO group maintains that it only sells this spyware to “vetted governments”.

The BJP government, until now, has not categorically said yes or no to one simple question: did they buy Pegasus spyware?

Nevertheless, there have been vague denials lead by the IT Minister (who ironically also figured as a potential snooping target) and oddly, the BJP government keeps quoting the NSO group’s statements on the issue. Why is the BJP government quoting a foreign technology agency instead of launching its own probe?

The issue here is very simple. The BJP government claims (kind of) that it was not snooping on its own citizens and for a moment, let us take that at face value. The question then arises — if the Indian government was not doing it, then a foreign

government was hacking into the phones of Indian citizens and that should cause huge outrage and a thorough probe. The way the BJP government is reacting to this issue, essentially stone walling any probe, makes one wonder: are their (kind of) denials simply

false? Is the BJP government not ordering a probe into Pegasus because they were the ones who bought it?

Far beyond politics

India’s parliament is being rocked by the spyware scandal in this monsoon session, with nearly all opposition parties coming together and demanding a discussion in the house.

Here too, the BJP does not want a discussion in the House. Why? A parliamentary committee on IT headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was planning to meet this week and question Home Ministry officials on this issue. But lack of quorum, thanks to the absence of BJP members, meant that the Committee could not meet. Again, why is the BJP running away from this?

Part of the issue here is that the BJP is betting on ordinary voters not really caring about privacy as an election issue. And they may be right.

For many Indians, and certainly the Sangh parivar’s supporters, illegal surveillance simply does not stir them or make them angry. What people don’t realise is that this is an issue which goes far beyond politics. It has repercussions for all of us and for India as a democracy.

I am not saying I know who did this. Was it the BJP government? Was it a foreign one? As an Indian citizen, I think we all deserve an impartial investigation into the matter. It is NOT OK for governments to violate our privacy this way.

As a woman, it is even more horrifying to think of what the spyware may be recording. It is not enough to say these allegations lack any basis. If you have nothing to hide, then order a probe headed by a sitting Supreme Court judge. That is the least the BJP government in India can do.