When Israeli cyber-arms company, NSO Group, invented spyware Pegasus, little did it know that the software would create such a damp squib in the Indian political circles! It would not be for the first time that an issue raised in such a passionate manner by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and TMC MP Mohua Mitra in Parliament on Thursday didn’t find many takers outside the political and media circles. If you were to ask the common man on the street, you might be surprised that they couldn’t care less! Nevertheless, this issue requires a detailed study, even if it is for the sake of setting the record straight. So, here is the dope on what Pegasus is and how is it connected to the Indian government’s surveillance policy.
In Greek mythology, Pegasus is the winged horse that was born out of the Gorgon Medusa’s blood while Perseus was beheading her. Later on, Pegasus’ soaring flight to the skies came to be interpreted as the soul rising to immortality. The Israeli company chose this Greek name for its Trojan horse computer virus spyware, perhaps, because it can go “flying through the air” to infect targeted cell phones in order to gather intelligence. In layman’s language, the spyware can be installed covertly on mobile phones as well as other devices that run on iOS and Android systems. All it takes is a zero-click iMessage exploit.
Indian Supreme Court Hears
On Thursday, a Supreme Court-appointed technical committee, looking into the Pegasus issue, extended the timeline for affected persons to pledge to submit their phones to the committee for further investigation. The new deadline is February 8 and so far, only two persons affected by the Pegasus spyware have submitted their phones. This is contrary to the amount of ruckus created over the spyware issue by the Opposition political parties and certain media houses. In a public notice, the SC-appointed panel said, “…the technical committee once again requests those who have reasonable causes to believe their mobile instrument is infected with Pegasus spyware to come forward and contact the technical committee with reasons as to why they believe that their mobile instrument may have been infected with the malware on or before February 8, 2022, by an email…” Earlier, the 3-member panel had issued an advertisement on January 2, 2022, asking affected parties to contact before 12 pm on January 7.
A New York Times report claimed recently that India bought the Pegasus spyware as part of its $2 billion deal with Israel 4 years back. The report also referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s July 2017 visit to the country. In response to the report, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on Thursday that it doesn’t hold any information regarding the controversy. Arindam Bagchi, MEA Spokesperson, said, “The alleged matter that has been referred to is under investigation by a committee set up by the Supreme Court. No information is available with the Ministry on this matter.” Regarding PM Modi’s 2017 visit to Israel, he added, “As regards the prime minister’s visit to Israel in 2017, MoUs were signed, the details of which are publicly available.”
Last year in July, Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister for IT & Communications, whose phone was also on the list of the hacked devices, had called the news reports “sensational” and without any factual basis. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the NYT report, which claims a source close to the Israeli cyber-arms sector, hasn’t offered any evidence regarding whether India has actually purchased the spyware or not.