Bharat Bhushan: Has Modi government compromised national security through Pegasus? / Pegasus spyware: the export of self-censorship / Saudi Government used Pegasus to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi / Global fightback against spyware

Where is the central repository of the leaked information located, and who controls it?   While it is par for the course for governments in India to put political opponents, media persons and diplomats under surveillance, the recent use of Israeli-origin Pegasus software may be particularly egregious. Its plug-and-play spyware converts a mobile phone into a surveillance device. The latest Pegasus leaks leave little doubt that its use has undermined India’s democratic institutions. This includes the judiciary, Election Commission, the Parliamentary Opposition, Cabinet of ministers, and media.

However one important ramification of the Pegasus spyware seems to have escaped the debate: the possibility that national security could be compromised if the intelligence gathered by Pegasus were available to a third country. By using Pegasus could the Modi government inadvertently have opened itself to strategic blackmail? Would not the organisation that has the list of target phones in its repository also have access to the information gathered from them?

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One must ask where did the leak of the 50,000 mobile phones ostensibly compromised by Pegasus take place. It clearly did not originate in India or in any country named in the leaks. So where is the central repository located and who controls it?

The prime suspect would be the NSO Group, which owns and sells Pegasus spyware, despite claiming that it has no knowledge of how its clients use it for investigating terrorism and serious crime. If this was in fact true then the NSO would be in no position to give a clean chit to its clients or assure critics that it can block clients’ access to the spyware if misused.

It is proven that the phones of assassinated Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, his wife, son and associates were compromised using Pegasus. It was also deployed to break into the phones of his fiancé and the Turkish Chief Prosecutor after his murder. The NSO Group, gave itself a clean chit saying it “can confirm that our technology was not used to listen, monitor, track, or collect information regarding him (Khashoggi) or his family members.”  Could the company have done this without direct “insight” into how its spyware was used?

The NSO Group claims that if misuse of its technology is established, it can take appropriate action, “shutting down of a customers’ system, something NSO has proven its ability and willingness to do… (has) done it multiple times in the past, and will not hesitate to do again.” A shutdown done remotely, would require the existence of a backdoor access to the Pegasus spyware programme. Pegasus clients may not have full knowledge of how much information is let in or let out through this backdoor.

The NSO Group is closely linked to the Israeli government. Sales to foreign clients are subject to Israeli Defence Ministry’s approval. It is also linked to Israel’s defence establishment through its recruitment of staff. According to OCCRP (Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project), many of the 700 employees of the NSO Group are young Israeli veterans – not surprising in a country with compulsory military service.

Moreover, it also points out, “Veterans from Unit 8200 of the Israeli Defence Forces, which is responsible for communications intelligence and has been described as ‘the foremost technical intelligence agency in the world’, are known to have helped develop its (NSO Group’s) technology.” The company’s spokesperson, Ariella Ben-Avraham, a former brigadier general, was Israel’s “State Censor” earlier.

Given these overlaps, the Israeli government’s claim that it “does not have access to the information gathered by NSO’s clients,” leaves niggling suspicions about the firewall, if any, between NSO and the Israeli state. It is tempting to speculate that Israeli state intelligence agencies might have access to the strategic intelligence gathered by Pegasus for NSO Group’s clients.

The NSO Group claims that its product cannot be used to penetrate US phones. Was this a conscious decision taken by those who designed the spyware and, if so, why? The Washington Post found that the dozen phone numbers of Americans working overseas on the leaked list, were all, except one, registered with foreign cellular networks. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that the phone numbers of public figures leaked in the list are overwhelmingly from countries where Israel and the US have strategic interests.

Assuming for the moment hypothetically, that a foreign country has access to data and intelligence gathered using Pegasus, what happens then? Can the stealthily-procured intelligence be used by the third party for geo-political ends? One might witness that unfolding in the region soon.

Given its history of being economical with the truth even before Parliament, unless the government categorically states that none of its intelligence agencies purchased or used Pegasus against Indian citizens, it will be presumed to be guilty. As India has good relations with Israel, Prime Minister Modi can easily follow his party MP Dr. Subramanian Swamy’s advice – ask Israel who paid for Pegasus and put his fellow citizens under surveillance.

These phones appeared on a leaked list of more than 50,000 numbers. On there were 10 prime ministers, three presidents – including France’s Emmanuel Macron – and the king of Morocco. The Indian government, suspected of being an NSO client, is thought to have selected numbers of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exileHundreds of phones belonging to British citizens were also listed, with the government responsible for picking them believed to be Britain’s Gulf ally the United Arab Emirates, that itself has close ties to UK partner Israel. With friends like these, one might ask what is required of our adversaries?..

Last year saw the highest global military spending – nearly $2tn – since 1988. More than half of that was expenditure by the United States and its allies. Defence capabilities are closely guarded national assets. A web of rules has grown up around the export of arms and their use. No country wants its most lethal weapons being turned upon themselves.

Yet there are at least 500 private companies that operate, largely unregulated, and sell intrusive software to oppressive regimes that spy on and harass their critics. These anti-democratic acts ought to be enough to bring such trade to a halt. However it has continued; the industry says these tools are for fighting crime and terrorism. What happens when, instead, governments opt to use these capabilities not just on their people, but on the democratic west?....

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