Snoopware May Have Helped BJP Topple Karnataka Govt; France Opens Pegasus Probe

Plus: Lok Sabha in uproar again, overseas, news about India is news about Pegasus, fuel tax brings Centre Rs 94,181 crore in one quarter, CSE connect increase in lightning strikes with climate change

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day

July 20, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

In a sneak preview of the latest instalment of The Wire’s ongoing expose of surveillance in India, The India Cable can share with its subscribers that the phone numbers of former Karnataka deputy chief minister G Parameshwara and the personal secretaries of then chief minister HD Kumaraswamy and former chief minister Siddaramaiah were selected as possible targets for surveillance in the run up to the toppling of Opposition-run state government. The records indicate that the senior political leaders’ phone numbers were selected around the time when an intense power struggle was on between the BJP and the JD(S)-Congress-led state government in 2019, after 17 ruling alliance legislators abruptly resigned to force a trust vote in the Assembly. 

This means that the toppling of an Opposition government was accomplished not merely by horse-trading, as the Congress and JD(S) had alleged at the time, but also perhaps by illegal surveillance (see The Wire for more on this story).

It is over 36 hours since the Pegasusgate story was broken by an international consortium of media houses, and no one in the Indian government has done the one thing they need to do to make it all right: declare that it had never contracted for the spyware, nor unleashed it on its own people ― including its own ministers. It has responded with denials, and by alleging a vague conspiracy to ruin the monsoon session of Parliament. In sharp contrast, France has already opened a probe on the use of Pegasus to spy on Mediapart, the French news portal looking into the Rafale deal. 

Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted a statement and drew attention to himself (in bold) and his infamous ‘chronology’ remark, which had caught on during the CAA-NRC controversy,  when he said that one followed the other, chronologically. “People have often associated this phrase with me in lighter vein but today I want to seriously say ― the timing of the selective leaks, the disruptions…Aap Chronology Samajhiye! This is a report by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations which do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress.”

Pegasusgate was exposed by the concerted work of The Wire and 16 foreign media organisations, none of which have a stake in the working of the Indian Parliament. The conspiracy theories only served to remind everyone that this is not a Modi government’s first attempt at surveillance of the public. There had been an embarrassing incident when he was chief minister of Gujarat, but without such broad political implications.    

The question that the government is skirting is: where does the buck stop? It has the confidence to attempt this dodge because the present investigation may not answer some key questions: Who bought Pegasus licences? On whose authority? How was the payment accounted for, and why did it not come to the attention of the CAG? These can be answered by a separate political and financial investigation, which would require the backing of an insistent Opposition ― which has an immediate motive, since Rahul Gandhi and his aides were targeted. The Congress has alleged “treason” and breach of national security, and demanded that the Prime Minister be probed. 

Politically, the buck stops at the top. The Telegraph notes, drawing parallels with Watergate, that there is no provision to impeach a head of government in India. The judiciary, the press and the legislatures need to weigh in and do their job. The fall in 1988 of Ramakrishna Hegde’s government in Karnataka, following a phone-tapping scandal, remains a landmark in Indian politics. Over 20 years later, a controversy over the alleged bugging of Pranab Mukherjee’s office was quickly shoved under the carpet. The age of transparent politics was drawing to a close. 

Besides, global standards have been violated. Apart from the general head of invasion of privacy (which alone would have brought down a government in a liberal democracy) the government of India will invite censure internationally for attacking the press, and for targeting 11 phones in the family of a woman who had complained of sexual harassment by the Chief Justice of India. Hard to say which charge is more damning. The Press Club of India,the Mumbai Press Club, Indian Women’s Press Corps and the International Press Institute all condemned the hacks and demanded an investigation. On the other hand, there is something utterly repulsive about the Ranjan Gogoi case. 

On his jaunts overseas, Prime Minister Modi likes to present his government as a liberal, improving force, but that’s done for. He is left clutching at umbrellas and in pique, the government may become inward-looking, spurning the international attention that it had earlier sought. Downing the portcullis and warning the people about foreign devils is a standard phase that undemocratic governments go through. 

Edward Snowden is warning that the smokescreen under which companies like NSO Group contract with governments, which makes it easy to evade responsibility, needs to be dispersed. This should not be difficult, though powerful interests are involved. If the regime of complete secrecy in which Swiss banks operated could be dismantled, this, too, can go.

Consequences of years of abuse of the system are catching up with NSO Group: following the first day of revelations by the Pegasus Project, Amazon Web Services shut down cloud infrastructure and accounts used by the company. This could be the beginning of the end for spyware of the Pegasus class. But the job would remain half-done if in every affected country, those who used the software or ordered its use are not identified and face criminal charges. 


Verbatim: Pegasus in the foreign press

The Guardian

“The selection of Indian [phone] numbers largely commenced around the time of Modi’s 2017 trip to Israel, the first visit to the country by an Indian prime minister and a marker of the burgeoning relationship between the two states, including billions of dollars in deals between Delhi and Israeli defence industries. Modi and the then Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, were pictured during the trip walking barefoot together on a beach. Days before, Indian targets had started being selected.”

Edward Snowden quoted Rahul Gandhi  in The Guardian story on India: “Those who did [the hacking] were looking to take undue advantage of their position of power… It is an attack on the democratic foundations of our country. It must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible identified and punished.”

The Washington Post

Proximity to India’s top officials was also common among some on the list. In 2019, a woman made an explosive complaint against the chief justice of India’s Supreme Court, accusing him of sexual harassment. After she rebuffed his advances, she said, she was dismissed from her job at the court. The justice denied the allegations.

“After the woman’s accusations went public, family members said they received anonymous threats. At least 11 phone numbers used by the woman, her husband and two other family members were also on the list of those apparently selected for potential surveillance. The justice is now a member of Parliament with the ruling party. The breadth of the potential targets in India raises legal questions. The Indian government has the power to ‘surveil, monitor and decrypt’ communications, but hacking is a crime in India.”

An editorial said: “Humanity is not in a place where we can have that much power just accessible to anybody.”

Haaretz

According to an analysis of the Pegasus Project records, more than 180 journalists were selected in 21 countries by at least 12 NSO clients. The potential targets and clients hail from Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, India, Mexico, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Togo and Rwanda. The Amnesty International Security Lab conducted forensic analyses of cell phones targeted with Pegasus as part of the project. Their findings are consistent with past analyses of those targeted with NSO’s spyware, including the case of dozens of journalists allegedly hacked in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, identified by Citizen Lab in December of last year. India is Israel’s biggest arms market, buying around $1 billion worth of weapons every year, according to Reuters. The two countries have grown closer since Modi became Indian prime minister in 2014, widening commercial cooperation beyond their longstanding defense ties. Modi became the first sitting Indian leader to visit Israel in July 2017, while former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a state visit to India at the start of 2018.”

Le Monde

In an editorial, the paper writes, “According to NSO, about forty countries have acquired this system. How many of them use it to circumvent the rule of law and engage in surveillance contrary to international law? The surveys of the ‘Pegasus Project’ lead to the answer ― ‘all or almost all,’ including democracies. The Israeli government, which validates each of the sales made by NSO, also makes an indirect admission of its knowledge of the abuses allowed by this tool, since it blocks surveillance attempts in China, the United States or Russia.”

A report reads, “Pegasus Project: in India, a state within a state ready to do anything to protect the prime minister,” and suggests that “ ambassadors/high commissioners of the following countries may have been targeted by Pegasus in New Delhi: Iran, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, China, and Saudi Arabia.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung

‘Election campaign with secret weapons’, is the title of the report, which asks, “The opposition in India around the prominent leading figure Rahul Gandhi was apparently investigated with the help of the software Pegasus. How did the attackers proceed – and who is behind the attack?”

BBC

“The latest episode, according to Ms Lakshane [a public policy researcher], points to the “scale and extent of electronic surveillance by the government and the lack of safeguards against such snooping.” India, she said, was in “dire need of surveillance reform,” writes the BBC.

“Parliament is likely to be roiled this week by this controversy. Ms Lakshane says it is a good time to ask some hard questions. What happens to intercepted data after it is used? Where is it stored and who exactly in the government has access to it? Does anyone outside government agencies have access to it? What are the digital security measures and safeguards?”

Other voices

“Governments should immediately cease their own use of surveillance technologies in ways that violate human rights, and take concrete actions to protect against such invasions of privacy by regulating the distribution, use and export of surveillance technologies created by others,” said Michelle Bachelet, chief of the United Nations Office of Human Rights.

Former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye referred to his report to UNHRC in 2019, arguing that the solution to an out-of-control spyware industry is to start with a global moratorium on sale/transfer and move toward a national human rights review before licensing any such technology.

The people behind the Signal messaging app write: “Interesting coincidence that [the Indian government has] also been advocating legislation to weaken encryption lately!”


In Other News

On the second day of the monsoon session, the Lok Sabha was once again shaken by the Pegasus affair, and was adjourned till 2 pm, amid cries of, “Stop killing democracy.” In the courts, Justice SS Shinde of the Bombay High Court said that the funeral service of Father Stan Swamy was very moving. And in the Supreme Court, Justice Rohinton Nariman revealed that Attorney General KK Venugopal is in hospital.  


And the Covid mismanagements story continues

Private hospitals, except in the metros, are struggling to carry out vaccination due to low supply, and the Centre procuring most of it. Days after criticism by the Centre for the slow pace of vaccination, the Association of Private Healthcare Providers of India, in a letter to the Union Health Ministry, has said that since vaccine manufacturing is yet to ramp up fully, most of the stock is picked up by the Centre for distribution. After central procurement, not much is available for the private sector, they noted.

‘A Secretive Body Is Making Questionable Covid Decisions in India’ ― that’s the headline for a story about the Indian Council of Medical Research, an academic institution that’s suddenly been appointed commander in the battle against a pandemic ― a role that it has never performed before. 

A serological survey of around 5,000 people from different parts of Ahmedabad in Gujarat has revealed that 81.63% of the sampled population had developed antibodies against Covid-19.


Oxfam report on health indicators

Sharp inequalities exist across different caste, religious, class and gender categories on various health indicators, according to Oxfam India. The Hindu finds that the report ‘India Inequality Report 2021: India’s Unequal Healthcare Story’shows that the “general category is better off than the SCs and STs, Hindus are better off than Muslims, the rich are better off than the poor, men are better off than women, and the urban population is better off than the rural population” on most health determinants, interventions and indicators. 


Prime number: Rs 94,181 crore
That is what the Union government has collected through levy of excise duty on petrol and diesel in the first three months of the current fiscal on the back of a record tax on fuel. Excise duty on petrol was hiked from Rs 19.98 per litre to Rs 32.9 last year to recoup gain arising from international oil prices plunging to a multi-year low as the pandemic slowed demand. Duty on diesel was raised to Rs 31.8 from Rs 15.83 a litre. This led to excise collections on petrol and diesel jumping to Rs 3.35 lakh crore in 2020-21 (April 2020 to March 2021), from Rs 1.78 lakh crore a year ago.

Payal Kapadia wins Oeil d’or

Director Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing won the Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) award for best documentary at the 74th Cannes Film Festival ― against stupendous odds. Under Gajendra Chauhan and Prashant Pathrabe, the Film and Television Institute of India initiated disciplinary action against Kapadia when she was a student there in 2015. She had boycotted classes and led a four-month-long protest against Chauhan. Later, FTII cut her grant.


Deep Dive

The Centre for Science and Environment reports a 34% rise in lightning strikes in India. Between April 2020 and March this year, India witnessed 18.5 million lightning strikes, marking a significant increase over 13.8 million bolts from the blue in a similar period the previous year, CSE and Down to Earth have found. It is believed there is “a link between lightning strikes and climate change triggered by unchecked urbanisation”.


Weatherman fumbles again, and again

Even though the Indian Meteorological Department has predicted “normal” rains for this year, monsoon rainfall was 10% above normal in June, but 26% deficient till now in July


Murthy lost 10 of family to Covid

US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy, an Indian-American, has said that he lost 10 family members, in the US and in India, to the Covid pandemic.


Opeds you don’t want to miss

  • Gautam Bhatia writes that the Pegasus revelations have raised serious questions about judicial independence. But they have also “brought a window of opportunity for the institution to adequately respond.”

  • “Pegasus-based surveillance is unacceptable. 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,” says the editorial in Hindustan Times.

  • Mint’s editorial states, “​​If Pegasus was snooping on our public figures, we must find out who exactly was using this invasive tool. So grave a matter calls for an independent probe. We also need a privacy law.”

  • The Business Standard editorial asks the government to reveal who is targeting Indian citizens.

  • The Defence Ministry’s obsession with securing an ever-higher percentage of indigenous content for its locally manufactured equipment is counterproductive, predicated as it is to the expectation that this would render it cheaper and effect savings. But no independent studies corroborate this assumption, write Rahul Bedi and Amit Cowshish.


Listen up

For over two decades, actor Dia Mirza has been busy supporting efforts to save natural biodiversity and wildlife, to fight animal cruelty, to promote sustainable alternatives and reduce pollution – especially from single-use plastics. She talks to Raghu Karnad about the youth’s participation in conserving our environment, the ‘anthropause’ and the power of purpose.


Watch Out

It would make for a good refresher ― the National Geographic documentary on the Watergate snooping scandal that felled US President, Richard Nixon. The Final Report: Watergate.


Over and out

The legendary Hindi writer Shivani’s memoir of her days as a student in Santiniketan is a nostalgic tribute “blended with humour”. Amader Santiniketan has an impressive cast of characters.

A car in India’s capital went under as the road caved in after a day of incessant rains. The police say no one was injured as the car was salvaged. Arresting pictures here.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.