ESPIONAGE and hostile surveillance are as old as human history. In the wild too, prey and predator keep an aggressive watch on each other, forever improving their strategy for survival. In the absence of technology, we even invented the myth of remote vigilance. Sanjay, a few thousand years before the advent of electronic espionage, could watch the contests on the battlefield from the palace of the blind king who he regularly briefed on the progress of the Mahabharata.
Simply put, Pegasus kind of snooping has been happening and even flourishing in societies democratic or otherwise. What sustains or expands the assault on our democratic rights today is the issue.
In the Soviet era, the West successfully, but not completely truthfully, claimed that spying on citizens was an integral part of communism. The Western bloc projected its own image as one of a free society where individual liberties were sacred and paramount. Disillusioned partisans on the rebound from Khrushchev’s exposé of Stalin only legitimised the notion of Big Brother keeping a toxic eye on fellow citizens.
The doughty American journalist Edward Murrow fought Senator McCarthy’s intrusion into newsrooms and Hollywood studio floors. He would swear by British democracy as the gold standard of probity. Murrow covered the war from London, and would observe later: “Britain fought and won without ever compromising the primacy of parliament.” Sadly, he spoke too soon. Quietly leading the secret charge against rights it would otherwise swear by, the UK is currently pondering a law that would put journalists at par with spies. Who leaked the picture of the health secretary kissing his aide is the pursuit, not why he broke the Covid law.
Pegasus seems just another handy tool available to delinquent states.
Bear in mind the tough fight being currently put up by the West against China over the 5G communications technology. The charge is that China would have access to global data. The 5G stand-off has its roots in 1948, when the UK and US signed the UKUSA agreement, a communication intelligence pact they later expanded to include Australia, New Zealand and Canada. This little discussed Anglo-Saxon intelligence alliance is known as Five Eyes.
The club didn’t have only communism in its cross hairs though that formed a sizeable chunk of their concern. True, Charles Chaplin and Tariq Ali were shadowed in varying degrees at different intervals and their ilk remains of much interest for snooping even today. Chaplin was placed under surveillance by MI5 on behalf of the FBI as part of a campaign to banish him from the US. Princess Diana, Angela Merkel, Jane Fonda, Ayatollah Khamenei and John Lennon among others are said to have been snooped on by one or the other member of the Five Eyes group for mutual benefit.
Initially believed to be gathering information on their own citizens to share with each other, Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 showed that the five countries had really been watching one another’s citizens in order to circumvent their own domestic regulations on citizen surveillance. Snooping with Pegasus appears to be built on a similar principle of deniability for use by autocrats aligned with the Five Eyes club. Israel is a small bit player in this tightly knit global arrangement, good for hatchet jobs. (The mention of Israel summons an image of mythical gadgetry, but remember how the ragtag Hamas exposed its claim of invincibility to very ordinary missiles recently.)
India, not unlike other democracies that have embraced neoliberalism, a policy that surrenders key components of the state to private capital, has veered sharply to the right since the fall of the Soviet Union. Like the rest of the world, its leaders are redesigning a tougher, militarised state to rein in the inevitable resistance. It’s hardly surprising then that the Pegasus malware is on a canter in India. However, from the revelations so far, its efficacy as a game changer has been iffy.
We are told, for example, that a crucial poll strategist for Mamata Banerjee may have been put under surveillance with the Israeli malware ahead of the elections. Banerjee won the polls nevertheless, and impressively too. We are told journalists have been put under its watch. But the journalists whose names appear on the list of potential targets are standing their ground undeterred. As for Rahul Gandhi being snooped, it would be naïve to believe he wasn’t being watched before Pegasus and hasn’t taken evasive action.
Moreover, it was the Congress government that confessed in 2013, one year before demitting office, that citizens were being spied on massively under Manmohan Singh’s watch. And it was Manmohan Singh who identified ragtag Maoist tribespeople as the biggest internal security threat to India. A bloody-minded expansion of that logic saw public-spirited intellectuals — including the late Father Stan Swamy — being jailed by the Modi government under severely draconian laws. The possibility that the brilliant and selfless men and women were spied on first with the Israeli malware is immaterial, but gives credence to the view that the government would go to any lengths against those who oppose the wholesale surrender of the state to private buccaneers, a core principle of neoliberalism.
Pegasus seems just another handy tool available to delinquent states. In India, there are journalists and rights workers who may not be under its surveillance but who are languishing in jail under undemocratic laws. Others are being served with dire legal notices with a view to stifle them. What can deter this assault on citizens?
For one, do accept that the infinitely more dangerous malware injected by the state is not in the phones but in the hearts and minds of the people. And since there isn’t a credible strategy on the horizon to challenge the free ride that neoliberalism and communalism — twins joined at the hip — continue to get, it’s excessive to hope that governments will surrender even when caught with their hands on the till.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2021