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Project Pegasus

  • IASbaba
  • July 20, 2021
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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INTERNATIONAL/ SECURITY/ GOVERNANCE

Topic:

  • GS-3: Cyber Security and its challenges
  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

Project Pegasus

Context: A global collaborative investigative project has discovered Israeli spyware Pegasus was used to target thousands of people across the world. In India, at least 300 people are believed to have been targeted.

What is Pegasus?

  • Built and marketed by Israeli company NSO, Pegasus is a software that infects devices & spies on the victim by transferring data to master server in an unauthorised manner.
  • NSO says the software is intended for use against criminals and terrorists and is made available only to military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies from countries with good human rights records.

How does it work?

  • Pegasus, in the very basic form, can infect devices that are connected to the internet. Some updated versions can also infect phones even without the victim clicking on any links or messages.
  • Most spyware and stalkerware apps disguise themselves as anti-theft applications that can be used to track stolen or lost devices. 
  • While viruses and malware can be detected by anti-virus software, spyware & stalkerware apps disguise themselves as useful and send out stolen data to central servers without the knowledge of users.
  • The software can, based on instructions from a remote server, automatically turn on the camera and the microphone and look into chats, access the calendar and read SMS-es and emails.

Issues: 

  • Scale of usage: The allegations here are not new. What is new is the scale of the targeting of innocent people that’s allegedly taking place. Nearly 200 reporters from 21 countries have their phone numbers on this list. 
  • Attack on Dissidents: It reflects a disturbing trend with regard to the use of hacking software against dissidents and adversaries. In 2019 also, Pegasus software was used to hack into HR & Dalit activists.
  • Violation of Fundamental Rights: The very existence of a surveillance system, whether under a provision of law or without it, impacts the right to privacy and the exercise of freedom of speech (Article 19) and personal liberty (A-21).
  • Endangers Safety of journalists: In the absence of privacy, the safety of journalists, especially those whose work criticises the government, and the personal safety of their sources is jeopardised.
  • Declining Press Freedom: World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders has ranked India 142 out of 180 countries in 2021 (India’s ranked 133 in 2016)
  • Leads to Self-Censorship: The perceived danger, founded on reasonable suspicion that surveillance may happen, itself impacts their ability to express, receive and discuss such ideas.
  • Dangers of Mass Surveillance: As spyware becomes more affordable and interception becomes more efficient, there will no longer be a need to target specific individuals. Everyone will be potentially subject to state-sponsored mass surveillance.
  • Weak Legislative Protection: The proposed legislation related to the personal data protection of Indian citizens fails to consider surveillance while also providing wide exemptions to government authorities.

Way Ahead

  • The need for judicial oversight over surveillance systems in general, and judicial investigation into the Pegasus hacking in particular, is essential.
  • Only the judiciary can be competent to decide whether specific instances of surveillance are proportionate, whether less onerous alternatives are available, and to balance the necessity of the government’s Security objectives with the rights of the impacted individuals

Connecting the dots:

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