Is the Pegasus Snoop Gate Real or Just an Attempt to Blame the Modi Government?

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In the recent times, the Pegasus Snoop Gate has rocked many countries in the world including India. According to reports, many top leaders, activists, journalists all over the world are know to have been snooped via their mobile phones through the Pegasus Spyware software. This incident if at all it has happened is serious infringement on the rights to privacy of an individual. But the real question arises on the authenticity of the snooping report using this software on major dailies of the world.

On 19th July, about 17 international media outlets published a report on the investigation around a leaked list of contact numbers from various parts of the world, also known as the Pegasus Project. These list also include 300 mobile numbers of  Indian nationals including political leaders, activists, journalists of India, whose phones are hacked possibly by the Pegasus spyware software as per The Wire report.

The list also interestingly includes the name of BJP’s ministers Mr. Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Singh Patel. However, there is no concrete proof of snooping (at the first place) on these contact details as per the list by Pegasus.

The list of contact numbers allegedly snooped was first accessed by Forbidden Stories accessed by (Paris-based non-profit organization) and Amnesty International. The data was then shared with some leading 17 global publications like – The GuardianThe Washington Post and The Wire as ‘Pegasus Project’. 

What is Pegasus?

Pegasus is a spyware developed by Israeli Firm NSO which can be installed on most versions of android phones and iPhones in a secretive manner. The company was known to be owned by American firm Francisco Partners, back in 2019. The software is used for complete surveillance against security threats faced by any country and is owned by Governments as per NSO. The tool cost huge.

As per the 2016 New York Times Report, it will pinch 500,000 USD as installation fee, and 650,000 USD to spy on 10 Android or iPhone users. A client may have to pay an additional fee of 800,000 USD for 100 more targets; 500,000 USD for 50 targets and 150,000 USD for 20 extra targets. Now, this price was some 5 years back.

Now, will the Indian Government spend so much on this tool to spy on their own ministers as well (As per Wire’s report stating the presence of names of BJP ministers as well as potential targets)? MP CM, Mr. Shiv Raj Singh Chouhan stated that leaders from Congress openly protest against the government on every issue and they are ‘politically zero’ so there is no need to spy on them.

Dubious Track Record of  Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International

Though the Pegasus Report has raised the eye brows of many but the background and some past deeds of Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International puts a question mark on this Pegasus Snoopgate altogether. Amnesty International had to leave India recently due to receiving of funds from questionable sources. As per the Guardian Report of 2019, Amnesty International is said to have a toxic work culture. It also said to have White Privilege as per the Guardian this year.

Forbidden Stories on the other hand was launched by RSF and Freedom Voices Network on 30th October 2017 to empower voices and stories of journalists in their absence. RSF is funded by regime changing entities against Syria. The organization receives funding from the US and is know for its overwhelming bias against Latin American countries.

As per a report on Britannica, the organization’s consultant role with UN was suspended in 2003 for one year for allegedly taking part in protest against Libya for chairing the UN Human Rights Commission.  The track record of Forbidden Stories’ donors are also dubious. One of its donor Luminate has a strategic plan of  2018 to 2022 like – “Illiberal democracies’ are emerging”, “Civic space is shrinking, and civil society is under attack”. Under such circumstances, unless there is some viable proof about the Pegasus Snoopgate, the jury is out!

Check Luminate’s Goal 2018 – 2022 here.

Who said What?

There is quite a confusion about the validity of this allegations. Amnesty International at once said something else and did not validate the findings. It stated – “The list contains the kind of people NSO’s clients would ordinarily be interested in spying on, but the list isn’t specifically a list of people who were spied on — though a very small subset of people on the list were indeed spied on”.

But on Thursday, Amnesty again issued a statement – “Amnesty International categorically stands by the findings of the Pegasus Project, and that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The false rumours being pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed.”

NSO the maker of Pegasus Spyware presented a complete opposite stand and denied the allegations that it’s product is used for illegal snooping. The company official stated – “Enough is Enough” and stated that it will no longer respond to media officials and will not accept such vague allegations.  The company spokesperson further added that they will look into the matter if provided a credible proof and not just on any fishing expedition.

The spokesperson categorically said – “NSO is a technology company. We do not operate the system, nor do we have access to the data of our customers, yet they are obligated to provide us with such information under investigations”. The spokesperson further added that NSO will strive in its mission to help governments in saving lives from terror attacks, sex, human trafficking, drug smuggling, etc. NSO has categorically termed the Pegasus Snoopgate controversy as a slanderous campaign by some motivated media publications.

In India, the opposition is up in arms to criticize the BJP government for this. Political parties like Congress and TMC claims that their leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Abhishek Banerjee are snooped and spied upon by the Indian Government. The Indian Parliament has gone berserk after the news of Pegasus Snoop Gate is out on the Wire. The Opposition Parties are demanding an Independent Probe into this matter.

Ironically, the Indian Government has alleged that The Wire has often spewed venom against it through half-truth and baseless allegations in the past. The monsoon session of the Parliament has been disrupted because of the Pegasus conspiracy before it is proven to be true.

The Indian Government have categorically denied all allegations. The Union Minister, Ms. Meenakshi Lekhi has termed the Pegasus incident as fake and fabricated. According to her – “The published story (about the targeting) is based on a list of numbers available in a directory. Second, Amnesty International has denied this. The company whose product is Pegasus has claimed that these claims are uncorroborated and do not tally with its customer base.”

While, Assam CM, Mr. Himanta Biswa Sarma have termed the Pegasus Snoop Gate as an international conspiracy. From the opposition, WB CM, Srimati Mamata Banerjee has given a national call to protest against this alleged snoop gate. She termed India as a ‘Surveillance State‘ under the current regime. The other opposition leaders from Congress, Samajwadi Party, AAP, Shiva Sena have also protested against the alleged snoop gate.

Though such illegal surveillance and snooping is against the ethos of a modern and democratic society. But, snooping, phone tapping and spying is no alien to the world in the 21st century. Many political parties of India and the World are blamed of snooping and phone tapping in the past.

At present, till no actionable evidence comes out and the result of any further investigation comes out, one can only speculate. But, the French Government – Mr. Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan PM – Mr. Imran Khan have already ordered a probe. Now, it seems to be found out, whether many other governments including India too follows the same path.