For those who have been crying wolf over sarkari surveillance, the beast is already at the door. Or rather at the portal of their smartphone, the best friend of over a billion Indians. But it is a smarter friend of snooping agencies with the smarts to know what people feel, think, say and text. The byte is worse than the bark of snoopdogs who don’t have to be physically present to guard the interests of governments and politicians. There is enough secret surveillance software available to governments to gather real-time info even on preference for masala dosa to a straying husband ordering a Dior dress for the wife. Ironically, as global sales of pricey smartphones, laptops and iPads grow dramatically, so does the spy power of privacy pirates who are playing havoc with the personal liberty of citizens on an unprecedented scale.
From New York to New Delhi, there is chatter about the recent electronic surveillance of prominent persons such as journalists, civil rights activists, politicians and artists. Is the end-to-end encryption the end? The invasion of WhatsApp, which is used by 1.5 billion citizens of the world, has stunned smartphone users. Many of them woke up to a warning from WhatsApp itself that their accounts have been penetrated by Pegasus, an Israeli snoopware developed by the NSO Group, which can infiltrate both Android and IoS devices.
It can record and transmit the cell numbers of callers and receivers even if there is no answer. Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which is locked in a legal battle with NSO, stated that Indian journalists and human rights activists were targeted by unnamed entities. It claims to have informed the government, which however went into denial mode and instead sought an explanation from Facebook. The Zuckerberg-owned company is in the crosshairs of many Western governments over its partisan privacy policies and sale of subscriber info to foreign agencies. L’affaire Pegasus has whipped up a political storm in India.
The Opposition, including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Congress, claimed that their phones were digitally penetrated by the government using Pegasus, which NSO says is sold only to governments. Of late, most smartphone users avoid making direct calls and prefer encrypted apps like Signal, FaceTime and Telegram as their preferred means of private and commercial communication.
They include civil servants and defence officials who are convinced that their call details on the direct line will be in the hands of agencies even before they conclude their chat. App is the new Big Brother. With technology changing faster than voice speed, data has replaced oil, precious metals and stones as the golden goose. In the Googlised Globe, nothing is a secret anymore. India, with one of the largest number of internet and cellphone users, is the target of data thieves, hackers and e-mercenaries. With the rise of e-commerce, enough apps abound to seduce prospective buyers with services and products.
And every app is a potential peeping Tom for governments and corporations. Indian mobile users are pestered with innumerable telemarketers selling everything from insurance to massage parlours because their data is easily available. Moreover, data is cheapest in India which raises serious questions of skullduggery. Since telcos are selling low-cost services, it can be safely assumed that they could be raking in the moolah by vending private details of customers.
With little robust legal protection against Big Brother with Big Ears, any entity with muscle and money power can misuse technology to get the dope on the social and economic druthers of all Indians. Pegasus is not a first in India. Previously, the government deployed untrained postal officials or telephone technicians to record conversations using a parallel connection. Later on, cellphone companies were given their license on the covert condition of providing easy access to any number that the administration wished to monitor.
Aaadhar appears to be the villain in the transmission of secret information today. Over one billion Indians have Aadhaar cards that are now linked with even bank accounts. Aadhaar registration agents were found illegally selling data in innumerable cases. Since Aadhaar is compulsory for getting a mobile connection, it automatically provides telcos with an enormous data bank without extra costs.
Phone tapping has been an important weapon of both state and Central governments to keep an eye and an ear on political rivals. It was rampant in the 1970s when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister. She sought real-time information on rising revolt levels in the party and an aggressive Opposition, which eventually led to the imposition of the Emergency. Later, Punjab terrorism and LTTE activity in South India provided strong reasons to the government to massively expand surveillance. Terrorism has driven agencies to seek more prying powers. The Centre has given sweeping peeping power to 10 organisations from the Income Tax to Delhi Police.
So have state governments to their own agencies. Though all of them are authorised to tap phones to monitor anti-national activity exclusively, not one follows the rule book. A reason for worry is the large number of private players gathering information about their business or social rivals. During the late 1980s, the government allowed the import of surveillance equipment without prior clearances. Later on, over 4,000 of the importers were found untraceable. The misuse of interception hit the nadir during P V Narasimha Rao’s time as PM. Senior cabinet minister and political adversary Arjun Singh even wrote an official letter accusing the PMO of tapping his phones.
Rao deputed a special technical team to do a sweep of Singh’s residence. During the UPA’s tenure, over 150,000 phones were being watched on regular basis to the extent that one minister reportedly tapped the phone of a rival mantri.
Technology has become the father of dictators and the inquisitor of democracy. A digital demon that has conjured up a technological ecosystem and architecture to provide ammunition to rulers who monitor the people have been created by Silion Valley moghuls like Zuckerberg. They are the most sought-after partners of governments across the earth, humoured, adored and admired wherever they go. The subtext of their travelogue to multi-billionaire stardom is the saga of hapless citizens who have lost their liberty and personal security.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla