Lift the lid off Pegasus

In the hands of the unscrupulous, the spyware could change the colour of justice

By Julio Ribeiro

What do I know of Pegasus? In Greek mythology it was the flying horse that was used by Bellerophon to do the impossible — reach Heaven. Bellerophon did not succeed in her mission. She was killed and the horse was turned into a constellation.

What about the Pegasus that opposition leaders are accusing Modi and Amit Shah of using against some of them, as well as others on the ruling party’s list of suspects? Will that Pegasus, too, meet the fate of the Greek horse? In the process will it singe those who purchased the software from NSO, the Israeli company that made the software?

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Who purchased the software? How much was spent? What was the purpose? Such questions are never, and will never be, answered. If they were answered, the world of cloaks and daggers would collapse. In which eventuality would the security of life and property and the security of nations be in jeopardy? All countries of the world, even tiny ones with a limited number of inhabitants, are required to keep a watch on their own citizens who are bent on disturbing peace.

I was never entrusted with the task of collecting or analysing intelligence. I would have been hopeless in the art of spying. When I was a Deputy Commissioner of Police in Mumbai in the late sixties, my course mate, Suryakant Jog, hurried to see me in my office one day with an intercept his Special Branch had made. He hurried me off my seat to the Commissioner’s room with the telephone intercept.

Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena’s founder and chief, was talking to one of his ‘shakha pramukhs’ about an attack on a public meeting to be addressed by the labour leader, George Fernandes, that very evening in Shivaji Park, which came squarely in my jurisdiction. The Police Commissioner was SG Pradhan. He sent Suryakant post haste to meet the Chief Minister, Vasantrao Naik, with this sensitive piece of information. In the meantime, the Commissioner and I wrapped up our strategy to counter the Shiv Sena’s plan.

Suryakant got the Chief Minister’s ear immediately on arrival at the latter’s office. Suryakant later told me that Naik did not bat an eyelid. It was obvious that he knew of the plan and had kept the information to himself. Suryakant got the feeling that Thackeray’s plan had the CM’s approval! When this was communicated to Pradhan in my presence we were mystified. The Commissioner left it to me to navigate the waters. I decided to strengthen the defences. The Inspector in charge was an old hand. He told me that he had dealt with dozens of such political gatherings successfully and he could not understand why a young DCP with limited hands-on experience should disrupt time-tested arrangements.

I could not tell him why but I had in my own way made the defences harder to penetrate. When the Sainiks decided to abandon their diabolical plan, and the meeting ended without a ripple, I was asked how the CM’s expectations were not met. I pleaded ignorance. If the attack had taken place, there would have been a major confrontation between the workers owing allegiance to a mercurial labour leader and the lumpen elements of Bal Thackeray’s Sena.

I am mentioning this incident or ‘non-incident’ to impress on my readers the importance of eavesdropping on the phones of some selected opposition leaders, especially those with a propensity to initiate violence. Such eavesdropping is as old as the hills. It is generally known to the opposition leaders that their phones would be under surveillance.

Numerous agencies, besides the intelligence unit of the police, have been empowered to tap telephones. Even the section of the income tax department that deals with major defaulters is so empowered. Each has its own different rules and procedures to follow. Senior officials with the required powers to sanction the intercepts are designated. A highly sophisticated spyware like the Pegasus would be discreetly assigned to the RAW or the IB and only the Directors of these two pole intelligence organisations would be the sole officials entrusted with its deployment.

Since there is no overview by Parliament prescribed by law, like it is in the US, for example, the scope for abuse is considerable. If Pegasus was used to garner information on our unfriendly neighbours, who in any case must be keeping an eye on us, I would not complain. But why, if it is true, Ashwini Vaishnaw, who was inducted as a minister later, Prahlad Patel, who was already a Minister of State, Sanjay Kachru, Smriti Irani’s OSD from 2014-15, and Pradeep Awasthi, Personal Secretary to the former Rajasthan CM, Vasundhara Raje, were kept under surveillance? It costs oodles of money to deploy Pegasus for each surveilee.

Putting Pravin Togadia, former international president of the VHP, in the selected list is understandable. Modi and he fell apart after the 2002 Gujarat riots. The woman who had accused the then CJI of molestation also figures on the list put out by The Wire and The Guardian. That too is not surprising. The government, any government for that matter, would like to keep a tab on the foibles of any top judicial officer of the realm to manipulate him when its vital interests need a helping hand.

The Opposition and some sections of the civil society are asking the government to disclose if it had bought Pegasus software, and if so, how the payment was effected and from which fund. They will not get this information from government sources, or from the suppliers.

But what really bothers me is that could this software be used to plant false evidence on the computers of pro-poor activists like Stan Swami and other Bhima-Koregaon accused? I do not know the answer. In the hands of the unscrupulous, Pegasus could change the colour of justice. And that would put the people of my country at extreme risk.

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