It is difficult to remember what life was like before the emergence of technology now that is so ingrained in our society and our daily lives. We have always heard that a leap forward in technology is a leap forward in all profits. While we are grateful for everyone who has given us these innovations, it is shortsighted to regard technology as a mere benefit to humanity. Technology has revolutionized the world over the past years but the revolution didn’t come without a price. While there are certain benefits to this tech-filled world, we cannot overlook the significant drawbacks of advancing technology.
Over time, cybercriminals have found innovative ways to get into the system of many organizations. With a growing reliance on software by businesses for their crucial operations such as accounting, project management and customer relationship, the importance of software security assurance has gradually increased. But with the emergence of spyware, it is becoming exceedingly difficult. The word “spy” for most pop culture fans comes with a James Bond or Jason Bourne reference. But this goes beyond pop culture to a very shady though a real-world where spying is practised and the ultimate spyware with severe vulnerabilities is here and is named after a Greek mythological white horse with wings, Pegasus.
Pegasus Spyware: A threat to mankind
Pegasus spyware was built and developed by an Israeli company, NSO Group which stands for its three founders, Niv Carmi, Shalev Hulio, and Omri Lavie- known to create the best-in-class technology by helping government agencies. But, the biggest question is, what was the need for such advanced spyware that can actively infect and steal all essential information from one’s device? Why was such spyware created?
Well, you might think, it must be to spy on people like Dawood Ibrahim, Hafiz Saeed, Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, etc. surprisingly the list doesn’t include any of these names. Even though NSO claims that they created Pegasus spyware to help Government Intelligence and Law Enforcement agencies in their fight against crime and terrorism, the list includes mostly journalists, academics, lawyers, politicians and government officials, and the judges of the Supreme Court and Head of States of countries. Big personalities like Jeff Bezos and French President Emmanuel Macron changed their phones because the Pegasus spyware was found in their devices.
NSO Group claims that 51% of the users are Intelligence agencies, 11% in the military, and 38% in law enforcement agencies. But at the same time, the Israeli spyware doesn’t collect information about its customers and has no visibility into its usage which raises the question of Pegasus spyware being a mass surveillance tool but the NSO Group in its Transparency and Responsibility Report claims it is not. According to the product brochure by NSO Group, Pegasus spyware can snoop SMS records, call and browsing history, contact and calendar details, emails, Whatsapp, Skype, Messenger, along with audio and video access even by taking screenshots without alerting the user. The Pegasus spyware operates on all kinds of devices and is sold in the form of licenses with its actual pricing depending on the contracts of the Pegasus-affected countries. But on average, according to the 2016 price list, NSO Group charged $650,000 to spy on ten devices, in addition to an installation fee of $500,000 collectively to its customers.
The Pegasus case in India, according to an analysis most of the journalists and government officials were targeted between 2018-19 which is the time of the Lok Sabha elections. Well, the Israeli spyware claims to offer the Pegasus spyware only to “vetted governments” and refuses to reveal the list, the alleged spying on former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his two close advisors, election strategist Prashant Kishor, Mamata Banerjee's nephew Abhishek Banerjee, Minister of Railways, Communications and Electronics & Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnav, and many others during 2017-2019 speak volumes. Amid the reports of possible hacking among the Pegasus-affected countries, the NSO Group said that the reports are false and misleading. The company is considering a defamation lawsuit because the reports published have no factual basis according to them. But along with this, a consequential question arises. spyware was initially created to spy on criminals and terrorists and is now being used to spy on opposition politicians, journalists, and activists. Is it fair to do so in a democratic country like India? Not. Such things happen in dictatorships.
When most of the opposition and independent media are saying that there needs to be an investigation into it led by the Supreme Court and not the government, in Algeria, Hungary, Israel, and France, a probe has already been initiated into the Pegasus spyware scandal. But the Indian government? The Indian government has not initiated any investigation on Israeli spyware as of now. They are busy claiming that it is an international plot to malign us. With our IT Minister trying to claim that just because someone’s name or number is on the list, it doesn’t mean that the person has been spied on. Well, that is technically the truth but not an answer to all these allegations because eventually, the Pegasus spyware is hacking India’s democracy.
Like Simon Wiesenthal rightly said, “The combination of hatred and technology is the greatest danger threatening mankind.”, doing something at an individual level to protect yourself against the zero-click Pegasus spyware is nearly impossible. With nations being helpless towards the Israeli spyware acts as a wake-up call for countries to act towards having a regulatory body against spyware because the NSO Group is a private organization and has been successful in creating havoc in a certain number of countries who now call themselves as Pegasus affected countries. It's essential to have a regulatory body set certain standards and enforce them to stop such a phenomenon to a huge extent. Along with that, anti-spyware software as powerful as the Pegasus spyware should be built to destroy what shouldn't exist in the first place because today it's just the government officials and journalists, tomorrow it can be any of us.