Moving Goalposts

The Modi government’s shifting position on Pegasus

Protestors carrying banners and props in a demonstration against the Modi government’s alleged surveillance operation using the Pegasus spyware. Prakash SINGH / AFP / Getty Images
23 August, 2021

It was one of those hazy and dry Delhi evenings, in October 2019, when my sources approached me with some startling information. People they knew had had their cell phones, and all their data on it, compromised by a dangerous software for at least two weeks in May that year—around the time of India’s general elections. They were contacted by Citizen’s Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the University of Toronto focussing on research, development, and high-level strategic policy and legal engagement on information and communication technologies, human rights and global security. WhatsApp too formally alerted these individuals that they had been targets of state-of-the-art surveillance.

After contacting two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists and journalists, I finally wrote for the news daily I was working for at the time that a prohibitively expensive cyberweapon sold by the Israeli private company NSO had been used to surveil some of India’s citizens. NSO sells the software only to governments or their agencies.

That Pegasus has been in use in India, therefore, cannot be a revelation for the Narendra Modi government. By its own admission, the government has known about its use for over two years. Since the story broke, the Modi government has resorted to various tactics: silence, diversion, subterfuge and digression. Although it has never denied that it bought Pegasus, the government has never given a direct answer to any question. This type of response makes India an outlier amongst the “democracies” it usually likes to be compared with. Instead, given the way it is behaving, we appear to have more in common with the governments of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, all of which imagine that they are not accountable for their actions.

A WhatsApp spokesperson had confirmed to me at the time that “Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number.” Before publishing the story, emails, phone calls and text messages were sent to AK Bhalla, the home secretary at the time, as well as to AP Sawhney, the secretary for electronics and information technology. But all calls for comments went unanswered.

Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. She was formerly the Delhi editor for BBC India and a deputy editor at the Indian Express. She is the co-author of Note by Note, The India Story (1947-2017) and the author of Anees and Sumitra, Tales & Recipes from a Khichdi Family.