A smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group, which features 'Pegasus' spyware. The Pegasus software has been linked to the mass surveillance of politicians, journalists, rights defenders and others. Photo: AFP / Joel Saget

Edward Snowden was once quoted as saying, “Do we want to live in a society where we live totally naked in front of government, and they are totally opaque to us?”

This is one of the most significant questions modern democracies are facing. Accountability and responsibility go hand in hand in a democracy. Accountability on the government side and responsibility on the citizen side maintain the credibility of democracy.

A dilution in either one shifts the balance of power and makes the state more fragile. But because of unprecedented growth in state and corporate surveillance, the values of democracy are eroding as never before.

Democracy, despite all its weaknesses, allows people to express themselves as they want to without any fear of being judged, pressured within the constitutional and human rights of the individual. But the danger associated with democracy is the conversion to a police state if checks on power are not maintained.

A police state is one where government institutions exercise an extreme level of control over civil society and liberties. Such a state can operate outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional state. Today even the countries that are the greatest symbols of a democratic state are facing the threat of becoming a police state. One such country is India.

Pegasus scandal

In the recent revelation of the Pegasus scandal, the line between a democratic state and the police state has blurred in India. India is listed among a group of countries whose governments appear to have bought Pegasus spyware developed by NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm – a charge neither denied nor accepted by the Indian government.

It is considered to be one of the most powerful mobile-phone hacking tools, which allows clients secretly to read every message of their targets, track their location, operate their microphone, and even film them through their camera remotely. It is like a Trojan horse, something that initially seems innocuous but is ultimately bad or malicious.

Pegasus is highly sophisticated spyware that is capable of infecting a mobile phone or device without any interaction with the owner. What is astonishing is the exorbitant cost of this spyware. It runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars per phone, apart from the fact that NSO charges an annual system maintenance fee of 17% of the total cost of the program.

That indicates that no private individual can afford the huge cost of maintaining checks on random people in large numbers without key infrastructure support. Moreover, the legal and political risks associated with such action is huge. No private individual will likely take such an exceptional risk.

Apart from that, it is a serious threat to the reputation of a country’s intelligence apparatus if a foreign corporation maintains a spy network as well as monitoring key public figures including, in India’s case, the leader of the opposition and two cabinet ministers. It raises seriously questions on whether the intelligence agency can be trusted with national security.

Since the Indian Parliament convened on July 19, it has been in deadlock. The opposition has been demanding a discussion and independent inquiry led by a Supreme Court judge, serving or retired, into reports that NSO sold spyware only to authorized governments. It’s a matter requiring serious investigation, and the truth must be revealed to the public.

Who is interested in the personal life of key public and private figures of India? The government denial on this matter raises suspicions. Analysis shows that more than 1,000 targets were selected by a client of NSO in India. Apart from key public figures, the list includes national-security figures as well as prominent journalists and activists.

But one key thing is quite common – most of the targets have been critical of the current federal government.

Subramanian Swamy, a key member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and a member of Rajya Sabha, upper house of the Indian Parliament, has demanded an explanation on this matter. Other key BJP allies and the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, have also demanded an inquiry.

Even the Supreme Court of India has categorically said that if the media allegations are true, then the situation is serious. The Court on Thursday made it clear that “truth has to come out” in the Pegasus issue.

This comment deserves attention because sharing the stage with countries with worse human-rights records such as Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is not an honor for India. It has certainly dented the nation’s image at the international level.

India heading toward a police state

In its latest annual report, “Democracy under Siege,” the US-based watchdog Freedom House downgraded India to the status of “partly free.” It noted that the spying episode had seriously dented on the rights to free speech and privacy in India.

Privacy is the foundation of all rights. It is the ability to make mistakes without prejudice and judgment as long as you do no harm to others. As long as a court or judge doesn’t say, “We have evidence this person is a criminal, you need to start watching him,” you are presumed to be left alone. No government has a right to question you.

These types of actions may be justifiable in a surveillance or authoritarian state, but not in a democracy. A surveillance state is dangerous not so much because it violates some standard of privacy, but because surveillance fuels control. The more the state knows, the more controls it will enforce in the future. It’s like a rabbit hole, no one knows where it will goes.

So if these key public figures are not allowed to have privacy today, then what are the odds that tomorrow the same cannot apply to the Indian masses at large? Certainly, this scandal has opened a Pandora’s box, whose consequences are yet to be realized. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

If the government accepts no accountability and does not launch an inquiry on this matter, then Indian democracy has certainly lost its right to call itself “the world’s largest democracy,” since democracy is based on fundamental rights. And privacy is the core fundamental right.

Ravi Kant

Ravi Kant is a financial writer with a deep passion for technology and economics, and also covers international politics and cybersecurity. He has wide experience in the financial world and his analysis has been published in leading magazines such as Mogul News and The Indian Economist. He is author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.