RECENTLY, WhatsApp (a company owned by Facebook) has made an explosive revelation. It has reached out to several journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and Opposition politicians in India, to inform them that a software sold by an Israeli company to Governments has been used to spy on them. Not only have their WhatsApp messages and calls been hacked; the software has used a loophole in WhatsApp’s encryption software to turn their phones and computers into spying devices.
The list of those targeted for such a blatantly illegal breach of privacy include lawyers representing the Bhima Koregaon accused, as well as journalists and activists who have been vocal against the Modi Government. The Congress party has also said that WhatsApp informed Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi that she too had been targeted.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry of the Modi Government has reacted by claiming that WhatsApp kept them in the dark about such surveillance. WhatsApp has disproved this allegation.
But the Modi Government is trying to deflect attention from its own guilt in the matter. It is clear that the spying software – Pegasus – is sold only to governments. So in India, it was either the central government, or some state governments, and their respective agencies that could have used this software. If voices questioning BJP-ruled Governments at Centre and State have been spied on, it is easy to conclude that it was the Governments doing the spying.
Some have tried to argue that such spying is justified as long as it was “in the interests of national security.” Such an argument suggests that the Government can be allowed to commit crimes as long as it is for the sake of “national security”. This is a position that no democracy can defend. By definition, civil liberties and democratic rights of citizens need to be defended primarily from the power of the government and State machinery. Because the government and State machinery have the power to use violence and surveillance, the Constitution imposes limits on that power. A landmark 1997 Supreme Court judgement on a writ petition filed by the PUCL, made it clear that no agency can tap the phones of any person without written authorisation. If a national security emergency demands it, the agency can seek a written authorisation order from the Home Secretary of Central or State Governments, or some other senior officer of the Home Department of State or Centre. Every such emergency authorisation must be submitted for review by a Review Committee within a week. Any phone tapping that has failed to get such authorisation is a serious crime.
We may recall that Modi and Shah, as Chief Minister and Home Minister respectively of Gujarat, have a dubious record of using the police and investigative agencies to illegally spy on a young woman for personal reasons. Patriarchal arguments were put forward to defend such spying. It should surprise no one that the Modi-Shah duo again head a Government which is implicated in illegally spying on dissenting citizens.
When the Modi Government feigns outrage at the WhatsApp spying scandal and demands an answer from WhatsApp, it is behaving like the thief who tries to escape by leading the crowd away shouting “Thief!” the loudest.
It is highly likely that Pegasus spyware (perhaps in conjunction with other technologies), was used not only to illegally tap the conversations of the persons targeted, but to plant material on their phones or computers.
Which Indian Government agency bought the Pegasus spying software? Who used it? Did they have authorisation for the phone tapping? If the Modi Government or any State Government or government agency illegally invaded the privacy of rights activists, journalists and political leaders, it amounts to a serious crime against India’s Constitution.
How to identify the perpetrators of this crime? RSS man Govindacharya has approached the Supreme Court demanding an NIA enquiry: but this petition smacks of match fixing. The NIA is a Government agency and cannot investigate a potential crime by the Government! An independent investigation is needed, to identify and punish the criminals.
Politically, it is clear that this large-scale illegal spying on political opponents and human rights defenders has the fingerprints of Modi and Shah all over it. In the US, President Nixon had had to resign when the illegal snooping scandal (Watergate) was exposed. In India, too, the Modi-Shah regime must be held accountable and punished for this crime. The Israeli software Pegasus is classified by its seller as a “weapon.” Buying and using this weapon secretly and illegally against India’s citizens is an act of terrorism. Punish the Modi-Shah regime for this act of terror against India’s courageous human rights defenders, Dalit lawyers, and journalists.