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July 21, 2021

Weapons of mass surveillance

 
July 21, 2021

Reports that several countries used a malicious software, developed by Israeli cyber firm NSO Group, to spy on hundreds of journalists, rights activists, politicians, business executives, and ordinary civilians by hacking their phones have sent shockwaves world over and exposed the perils of modern technology. The revelations came about after journalism and rights watchdogs Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International gained access to a leaked list of 50,000 smartphone numbers said to be of interest to governments using a spyware called Pegasus, and then shared the data with prominent news outlets around the globe. Even though NSO describes its highly surreptitious and invasive for-sale software as a means to counter terrorism and nab criminals, and claims only ‘vetted government customers’ use it under ‘contractual obligations’, the explanation appears to be mere lip service as this is not the first revelation of its kind. Pegasus first gained notoriety in 2016 when it was accused of being used to spy on a UAE dissident. In 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO accusing it of ‘unauthorised access and abuse’ of its services and later the same year, an anonymously sourced Guardian report revealed the hacking of mobile phones of over two dozen senior Pakistani government officials using NSO software. Then, in January last year, Amazon CEO and The Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’s phone was alleged to have been targeted by Pegasus through a WhatsApp message reportedly originating in Saudi Arabia.

It is not surprising that authoritarian governments around the world, from India to Hungary, are bent on using any means necessary, including surveillance of their own citizens, to preserve power and crush dissent. And while Western intelligence agencies, especially the US National Security Agency, misuse their unfettered powers to conduct global mass surveillance as evidenced in whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures, the availability of similar powerful spying tools for the highest bidder to use at their discretion is equally if not more worrying, along with being completely illegal. Unfortunately, NSO is not the only company selling such services and it is difficult if not impossible to reprimand them when their very clients comprise powerful nations with considerable influence.

As the latest leak features several numbers of Pakistani officials on an Indian list of potential surveillance targets, including a mobile number once used by Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan needs to substantially upgrade its cyber security infrastructure. Following the revelation, the Ministry of IT has claimed it is in the process of launching a more secure app to be used for high-level communication across the government. It must do so at the earliest as similar claims were made following the 2019 Guardian report. At the same time, as a society we have to start taking data protection and surveillance seriously. Draconian laws providing the government easy access to users’ digital data and ability to remove content on the flimsiest of pretences should have no place in a modern democracy. Nor should domestic surveillance be bandied about so casually, as evidenced in the PM’s remarks last year that he is aware intelligence agencies surveil his phone, or PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto’s remarks in parliament last month wherein he said he would request the PM to have the foreign minister’s phone tapped to keep a check on his activities. Most importantly, this latest cross-continental journalistic collaboration – much like the Panama Papers and Wikileaks – proves the power of collaborative journalism and a robust and independent fourth estate to keep a check on the abuse of power – both at home and abroad.