Big Brother is phishing you

WhatsApp Pegasus controversy has stoked new fears about government surveillance. As terrorists use encryption to hide their plots, civil society groups cry violation of rights. 
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

Last week, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval had a story to tell intelligence officers at a meeting. It was a story about a story told by legendary German chancellor Otto von Bismarck to his staff officers.

The Tsar of Russia asked an old soldier, whom he had been seeing at the same place for many years, what he was doing.

The reply was, “I’m deputed to find the Tsarina’s missing necklace which was lost somewhere around here. It has been 84 years but I still haven’t found it.”

The point Doval was making was that strategy and position must change according to the need of the times and security had to be reinsured with strategic shifts. The NSA’s advice was that Indian agencies must adopt Fourth Generation Warfare, which involved the people to aid the government in the war against terror and other hostile forces.

The chosen weapon of this warfare is cyber power. The Narendra Modi government claims that a section of Left-leaning civil society leaders had been working against the national interest. On the last day October segued into November, Facebook-owned WhatsApp dropped a bombshell.

It claimed that the malware Pegasus, created by Israeli tech company NSO Group, had penetrated the cellphones of many Indian journalists, human rights activists and politicians. NSO also said Pegasus clients were governments.

WhatsApp had sued it for helping governments to access the cellphones of around 1,400 diplomats, political dissidents, media and senior public officials in four continents. The Opposition was quick to blame the Centre.

Their accusation was promptly denied by Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. He had met officials of social messaging groups on July 26 and September 11 to discuss “the government’s concerns over traceability of messages”. He asked WhatsApp why the leak was not disclosed then. Conspiracy theories abound.

• The NDA government wants to know what its critics and political rivals are up to.
• Social messaging companies refused its demand to access encrypted messages.
• WhatsApp itself was doing the snooping to destroy the government’s credibility.


Intelligence agencies are sceptical of Pegasus. “What new information can someone like, for example, Bela Bhatia or Anand Teltumbde, be hiding from us? They have been investigated thoroughly,” says an intelligence consultant. Bhatia is a human rights activist in Bastar who, police allege, is closely connected with the Naxalite cause.

Teltumbde is a Dalit rights activist. Telephone monitoring is a common government surveillance tool since analogue days. Last week, the Chhattisgarh government incurred judicial wrath over bugging a senior cop’s phone.

The judges asked, “What is the need to do this? No privacy is left for anybody. What is happening in this country?”

In August, phones of politicians and gurus were tapped illegally in Karnataka. In October, the Bombay High Court struck down Union Home Ministry orders that allowed CBI to intercept phone calls in a bribery case. During the UPA’s tenure, clandestine listening devices were found in Union ministers AK Antony and Pranab Mukherjee’s offices. In another time and place before Trumpian America, Watergate cost Richard Nixon his presidency after he illegally investigated activist groups and Democrats.


As the Pegasus scandal emerged as the cause celebre of last week, media reports revealed that many governments in many countries have been trying to bend messaging apps to their will with little success.

After the 2016 attack on the Nagrota army camp in J&K, Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists arrested by the National Investigation Agency confessed to receiving instructions on WhatsApp from across the border. In 2017, Adrian Ajao, who massacred four people in London before he was shot by the police, sent a final WhatsApp message which investigators believed contained vital clues.

The social media company expressed its helplessness to comply. National security is the stated reason why governments, not just dictatorships such as China, are demanding encrypted apps to open their doors. Pegasus is not the only Israeli surveillance firm the Indian government had dealt with.

India’s premier forensic agency Forensic Science Laboratory would be buying technology from Israeli firm Cellebrite to decrypt iPhones.

The FBI had used the services of such firms to unlock the iPhones of Islamic State (IS) terrorist Syed Farooq who carried out an attack in San Bernardino, California, which killed 14 people. Indian agencies admit that the government is outsourcing snoopware from Italy and Israel to target criminals and terrorists who use the Dark Web to trade in drugs, arms and red rooms in secure internet chat rooms.

Since 2014, it has been cracking down on some NGOs which are funded by foreign players. Security experts say such organisations focus on mass mobilisation through social media, rumour-mongering online, shaping perception, radicalisation, recruitment, inter-terrorist group communication, unregulated Voice Over Internet Protocol and unauthorised satellite-linked social media channels.

The government is working on two classified projects—(1) establishing cyber labs and ops rooms in every police range in the country, and (2) the formation of a centre for excellence in cyber monitoring, analysis and operations at the national level.

“Mark the sudden surge in the recruitment of IT professionals by agencies,” the official says, adding, “We are also enhancing partnership agreements with foreign agencies, both private and government.”


Activists are concerned that monitoring is being done at the expense of privacy and transparency. Says a civil society champion, “Soni Sori is from a landed family which was attacked by Naxals. Why will she take their side or funnel money to them?”

Maoists, who had stayed away from mobile phones and computers, have become tech-savvy. A document recovered during an encounter in April 2017 noted that they were using WhatsApp. The government is combating encrypted digital communication on many fronts.

Concerned about fake news on WhatsApp regarding cow slaughter and childnapping, stringent regulations have been proposed to force online platforms to take down content that cause “unimaginable disruption” to democracy.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has approached the Supreme Court seeking permission for oversight of encrypted social messaging. In a draft of guidelines published in late 2018, any online service—social media or otherwise—with more than five million users as intermediaries would come under its purview.

Facebook is in court opposing the government which is trying to force WhatsApp to reveal the source of messages. Since WhatsApp is a global service, this is unlikely. The ministry has warned that regulation will be in place by January 15, 2020.

According to proposed amendments to the Information Technology Act, internet platforms with more than five million users must have a registered office in India headed by an officer who will be answerable to the government.

The firms would have to retain user data for 180 days or longer for agencies to investigate. Ten law enforcement, intelligence and tax agencies have been authorised to intercept information generated, transmitted, received or stored on any computer, smartphone, tablet or other computing device. Privacy groups condemn these moves as blatant infringement of individual freedoms.

India has a strong net neutrality law, which states that “internet access services should be governed by a principle that restricts any form of discrimination or interference in the treatment of content.” This includes “blocking, degrading, slowing down or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content.” Personal surveillance is not limited to government alone.

Android app TextSecure not just hides texts, but also uses cryptography to ensure that they remain truly secure. RedPhone provides end-to-end encryption for calls to secure conversations. Orbot uses Tor to encrypt and hide messages by bouncing data through a series of computers around the world.

The child-monitoring app MMGuardian gives a parent total control over kids’ digital access, messages, app use, contacts, location and block specific contacts and unsafe websites. AllTracker Family app is even more intrusive, allowing parents to check on the last-used app, keep track of calls and see the present location.

It even lets them listen in on calls through the microphone on the smartphone and use its camera to stream live video. Governments have become smarter as technology progresses: the Chinese education app Xuexi Qiangguo, with over 100 million downloads, was audited by the Open Technology Fund (OTF) and Berlin-based cybersecurity firm Cure53. They discovered that it is actually a surveillance app to appropriate personal data from smartphones and identify youth and families hostile to the Communist party.


All countries except for Pakistan and a few renegade Islamic nations are concerned about the use of encrypted cyber technology by terrorists who use WhatsApp and Telegram to plot and coordinate attacks across the world. Al-Qaida’s magazine Inspire publishes its public-key to enable anyone using the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) programme to encipher messages that only its publishers can read. In the IS ranking of 30 apps, including WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal, the favourite is the Russian-made Telegram.

The new battlefield of security is metadata—data that provides information about other data—such as phone calls that reveal the identities of the callers and the length of their conversations.

The National Security Agency of the US used metadata to identify and bring down terrorists with drone strikes. Technological surveillance and spycraft is a deadly game of moves and countermoves that evolves every minute; terrorists can turn the tables with cutting-edge encryption. IS operative Junaid Hussain, who used encryption messaging app Surespot to teach sympathisers back home in Britain how to make bomb, was killed in a drone strike after MI6 hacked the software.

The intelligence service acquired the unique identifier of the phone (IMSI) to plant a virus, which tricked the instrument to broadcast its own GPS location to monitoring aircraft and drones. However, the Infobahn is not an easy drive.

After the government abolished Kashmir’s special status, authorities were forced to shut down internet services to stop fake videos from Pakistan from reaching local cellphones. A paper by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, the US Army’s training centre for officer cadets, says that though unbreakable encryption is here to stay, all is not lost.

It states, “Legislative efforts to help law enforcement agencies wrestle with the phenomenon of ‘going dark’ will never lead to a return to the status quo ante ...intelligence agencies have been able to hack the software on the ends and take advantage of users’ mistakes.” Human error is an inevitable algorithm in spycraft. The technological invasion of privacy is not restricted to governments alone. Internet giants like Google mine personal data of users for their own marketing activities. A CNBC report said Google’s free tools nudge users towards super-targeted advertising, which is how it made $31.2 billion in the first three months of 2018. Google says it uses data to show ads which are relevant and useful to the consumer—which is essentially the same thing. Both Google and Amazon hire private contractors to listen to audio clips through Google Assistant and Alexa respectively, though user identities are masked.


Mankind is nosy by nature. Mentions of spies are found in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or on papyri. Very much like superpowers now, Egyptian spymasters focused on intelligence-gathering about the political and military power of inimical empires of Greece and Rome. Code was developed. Courier systems were established which exist now as technological avatars.

The Roman Empire was rife with political espionage, both foreign and domestic, conducted by vicious secret police called the Frumentarii. Spies were used against foreign enemies in the Indus Valley Civilisation 2,500 years ago. Chanakya’s Arthashastra contains extensive mentions about the use of sleuths to watch enemies and the entire citizenry. Entrapment is a common espionage trick; the CIA suspects that the Russians honey-trapped Donald Trump with a video of his golden shower. 

Mata Hari who spied for the Nazis in France, had predecessors in Chanakya’s Magadha: Arthashastra 11.1 advises, “To undermine a ruling oligarchy, make chiefs of the (enemy’s) ruling council infatuated with women possessed of great beauty and youth. When passion is roused in them, they should start quarrels by creating belief (about their love) in one and by going to another.” Sun Tzu’s The Art of War describes the use of secret agents in warfare.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed a vast and powerful intelligence network to identify enemies for assassination and heretics to be burnt in the Inquisition, which spread to dominions even as far as Portuguese Goa. In the late 1500s, England’s Queen Elizabeth appointed Sir Francis Walsingham to set up a ruthless espionage network to foil Catholic plots by France and Spain. Technological development in the Renaissance period brought small firearms, invisible ink, encryption and complex mathematical code into espionage.

Telescopes, magnifying glasses, the camera obscura and timepieces were used by spies to transmit information. Then arrived the game-changing Daguerreotype in 1837, which enabled agents to take photographs of enemy war plans and documents. The Morse Code followed soon after in 1844. British counterintelligence in colonial India frustrated rebel plans and later, its legendary agents involved in the Great Game against Russia changed the geopolitics of the region.

The 20th-century historians were obsessed with the surveillance and torture methods of secret police in Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain and the USSR. Edward Snowden, the US defector who blew open the lid on NASA snooping, caused an international diplomatic firestorm.

Leaks revealed that NASA pried on the digital records of India’s internet traffic, emails, telephone calls and office conversations through the UN mission in New York. In the 2014 spy movie The November Man, spymaster John Hanley played by Bill Smitrovich tells Pierce Brosnan’s CIA agent and assassin Peter Devereaux, “Information is not power. People are power.” People in power thrive on information to protect the country’s interests like Ajit Doval, or their own, like Donald Trump.

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