The Pegasus spyware probe has revealed how military-grade software put on the phones of individuals targeted transforms the device into an object that spies on the user, takes data, and sends data to unknown databases. The Pegasus project’s findings raise questions about the constitutional authorities’ integrity, the very idea of democracy and the Court’s integrity.
On the list of possible Pegasus surveillance targets was a woman Supreme Court staffer who had accused ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019, a case which was murky in itself, considering that the accused presided over his own hearings, while already being in a position of power.
According to the conclusions of the Pegasus project, the complainant was added to a list of “persons of interest.” In the same week that she initially spoke out about the accusations, three of her phone numbers, as well as eight others belonging to her husband, his two brothers, and others linked with her, were designated as prospective targets for surveillance.
Attempts to “look up” all 11 phone numbers — a crucial first step before executing a potential attack with spyware such as Pegasus, according to telecom security specialists – reportedly persisted for at least many months after the allegations were first made public.
The Role of Surveillance in Suppression
The Pegasus project reveals that people’s rights and liberties, over which the Supreme Court is responsible, are under severe jeopardy. People who resisted the dictatorship were made persons of interest and targets of the Pegasus spyware, including journalists, attorneys, clients, activists, academics, students, and even this sexual harassment complainant, witnesses, and their supporters. Human rights advocates have claimed that such hacking, as well as other forms of abuse of office, has resulted in political dissidents being falsely prosecuted, imprisoned without charge, tortured in custody, and killed in custody. The Israeli company NSO stated that Pegasus is solely supplied to governments. The Indian list of targets, on the other hand, suggests that the software was used to gather information on, and perhaps manipulate, opposition politicians, the courts, the press, as well as activists and others in civil society.
Surveillance is often with the goal to control, more than to have information. In the event that a person is surveilled, they tend to change future behaviours and that is the very intent of intimidatory surveillance.
Spying on journalists, activists, and political leaders is a way to intimidate them against speaking truth to power. The use of such monitoring technologies may prohibit journalists from working on and reporting on sensitive issues, some of which may also be against the incumbent government, in case surveillance jeopardises their sources’ personal safety. It also prevents human rights advocates from assisting vulnerable individuals, putting them in greater danger than the defenders themselves.
When you throw gender into the equation, the suppression is worse, because it stems from physical forms of control exercised over women’s bodies and lives. When the Supreme Court staffer spoke out against Ranjan Gogoi, she challenged hetero-patriarchal norms and she did it to a person in authority. The intent of surveillance in this case, therefore, is to pose a greater threat that influences a future pattern of behaviour.
Surveillance is commonly misunderstood as only a means of keeping tabs on people’s activities, such as what they’re doing now or what they’ve done in the past.
Surveillance, on the other hand, has a second dimension: it influences our future behaviour. Despite the fact that the internet era has intensified the monitoring that women and people of marginalised genders face, women have always been watched by a variety of players, from spouses and parents to the government. Gender and sexual minorities and women’s lives have been shaped, influenced and harmed as a result of this.
Survivors of Sexual Harassment
What does this mean for survivors of sexual assault who wish to report their ordeals against men in positions of power? Already, us women and queer folks live in a culture that not only doesn’t believe, but actively works against us, in which cis-dominated, Savarna-dominated campaigns like #MeToo produce superficial change but do not transform the system, and in which, we are frightened to speak out against our abusers.
Consider all the ways a woman’s privacy might be violated if her phone is being used to spy on her. Our devices contain our whole lives, including where we are, who we chat with, and what we read, watch, and listen to, what pictures we have taken, what directions we have googled on Maps. Everything. Now consider yourself to be in a position where you know somebody is always watching. From a gendered view, instances of privacy breaches and online attacks are not simply faux realities that exist on just the screens. We know for a fact how our vulnerabilities and our histories of violence make us susceptible to these things being used against us in malicious, violent ways.
It, therefore, not just violates our rights to personal privacy, our rights to secure data—but also to the very fundamental rights of movement, of free speech, expression; and preambular rights of personal liberty. How simple is it to break a private agreement and obtain access to all of the woman’s communications with her lawyers? This data may simply be utilised to predict their every action and then devise a defence strategy to counter it. And why stop at defences when the intimate nature of the material discovered on someone’s phone might be used to blackmail them into abandoning the case? It violates the rights to fair trial and right to judicial remedy. It shakes the very ideals of democracy.
The survivor of sexual harassment in the case in question withdrew citing lack of sensitivity, in a panel where her abuser was one of the judges! The situation is already this worse for survivors of gender-based crimes. This begs the question: what in this case was so important to surveil, that the government could present a “national security”,“counter terrorism” kind of narrative?
The heart of the matter is that surveillance is a feminist issue: and we must care, not simply for privacy, but because surveillance impacts so many other rights. This understanding in turn will deepen our efforts to fight surveillance’s multiple harms, to the rights to movement, personal liberty, and many other violations. New security concerns for people, organisations and nations have developed as a result of the advancement of new technologies. Responses to such dangers, particularly governments’ unparalleled capacity to spy on their citizens, have frequently been criticised for having a detrimental influence on human rights. It must then, be every government’s fundamental priority to combine security and human rights, in a way that the use of legal or technical means to access data and intercept communications in India must be authorised only in emergency situations, under judicial control and oversight, and with other protections to safeguard our citizens.
The Supreme Court’s silence as an institution on these disclosures is profoundly concerning for survivors in India. There are several issues that the Government of India, the Home Ministry, Ranjan Gogoi, and the NSO must address; the Supreme Court has the authority and responsibility to speak for us. There should be a reform that addresses the risks that surveillance poses, and we must answer the question of the general safety of survivors of this country. Only then, will gendered minorities feel comfortable to speak out against superiors like Gogoi.
Featured image source: The NewsMinute