New Delhi: After The Wire and 16 other media organisations uncovered a ‘snoop list’ that showed activists, politicians, journalists, judges and several others were targets of cyber-surveillance through the Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus software, newspaper editorials said the reports raise concerning questions that need to be answered by the government.
Over the past two days, The Wire has published several reports that suggest that the software, which is only sold to governments, was being used to keep tabs on dissidents and journalists. This counters the NSO Group’s claim that the software is sold to fight terrorism and crime.
In an editorial, Hindustan Times said that the allegations of “widespread surveillance”, if true, “represent an unacceptable and illegal invasion of the right to privacy, right to liberty, and the right to dignity of all those targeted”. The reports also throw up “deeply disturbing questions” about the source of the hack and represent a “subversion of India’s constitutional democracy”, the newspaper said.
Three current employees of the newspaper were on the ‘snoop list‘.
“The Government of India (GOI) has denied allegations of illegal surveillance, and claimed all interceptions are as per law and due process — though it does leave room open to ask if GOI has purchased Pegasus and deployed it,” the editorial says.
The newspaper said that the gravity of the allegations and their implications for Indian democracy are “enormous”.
“If the Indian government has done this, it is a betrayal of the constitutional compact with citizens. If another government has done it, it is a cyber attack on India and its citizens. Either way, there must be a truly independent judicial enquiry to get to the truth and hold those responsible for this violation of fundamental rights accountable,” HT said.
In a ‘quick edit’, the Times of India said that the fresh allegations of snooping raise “uncomfortable questions” despite its rejection of any involvement. “The existence of companies like NSO Group, which claim legitimacy by working with governments, is just as worrying as rogue hackers attacking governments,” the editorial said.
The newspaper said hat “rising international laxity in governmental regard for democratic proprieties” calls for a global audit of such companies and greater civil society activism.
“Domestically, India must revive discourse on judicial and legislative accountability when it comes to surveillance of its own citizens. The current bureaucratic safeguards must be reviewed. Democracy can wither from within. With more tools like Pegasus out there, it must be safeguarded even more strongly,” TOI said.
In an editorial, The Guardian, which is part of the consortium that has uncovered the allegations, said there is an “unregulated global industry” that provides military grade surveillance software.
“Is political dissent now a form of terror? Are activists’ thoughts crimes? For some regimes the answer is, unfortunately, yes,” the newspaper said. It notes that the number of a murdered Mexican journalist was selected by an NSO client and that it was used to target people who were close Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, both before and after he was killed.
The editorial, discussing people targeted in India, says, “In India, the phone numbers of hundreds of opponents of the Hindu nationalist Modi government, including a senior Congress party leader, Rahul Gandhi, are in the leaked data. Mr Gandhi called it ‘an attack on the democratic foundations of our country’. He’s right.”
The Guardian said that the revelations show that there is scant mobile phone privacy and that a “society lacking the virtues of democracy, such as freedom of speech and association, risks a descent into tyranny”.
It also wondered if there should be a legal framework that allows victims of spyware to hold governments, or the complicit companies, accountable for “abuse and misuse”.
“What would not be prudent is to persevere with light-touch regulation that is ineffective at preventing violations of human rights by repressive regimes or at protecting individuals or companies from unlawful hacking,” the editorial concludes.
Read The Wire’s coverage as part of the Pegasus Project here.