Indian Supreme Court Orders Inquiry Into Government’s Use of Spyware

Published · Nov 02, 2021

The Indian Supreme Court ordered an independent probe into the government’s alleged use of Pegasus spyware. The suspicion is that the state illegally spied on political opponents, journalists, and activists. This follows a long campaign by privacy activists.

The Supreme Court ordered the inquiry in response to numerous cases brought forth by Indian journalists and activists. They were all targets of Pegasus spyware. Earlier this year, 50,000 phone numbers around the globe became targets of the attack.

Israeli-based NSO developed the spyware and licenses it for use around the world. According to spokespeople from the company, the spyware has a license for legal uses. These include criminal investigations that require deeper insight than an ordinary background check or people search service can provide.

However, it turns out that many entities have been using the spyware illegally. Different parties have installed it on cellphones remotely and used it to scrape data and switch on cameras and microphones.

Independent investigations indicate that the Indian government was among those parties. So far, Delhi has been evasive in answering questions about its use. Therefore, the investigation conducted by three cybersecurity experts will seek conclusive facts.

Overreach in India

Modi's government’s use of spyware against activists, journalists, and political opponents, if proven, will be part of an emerging pattern. The Pegasus spyware undermines the ability of the aforementioned groups to work online in secret.

Secrecy is warranted due to the nature of these groups’ work, and the likelihood of them being attacked for it.

Another two things that protect these groups are VPNs and encrypted messaging. Both technologies are under threat by the incumbent Indian government.

Earlier this year, an Indian parliamentary committee began pushing for a complete ban on VPNs. The Indian government also attempted to pressure WhatsApp into breaking encryption. The state claimed in both cases that the measures were necessary to combat cybercrime.

Commentators and even India’s own judiciary have a different take. They believe this is part of a growing governmental overreach. The judgment ordering the inquiry said as much when it compared the behavior of the government to that of Orwell’s 1984 “Big Brother.”

An erasure of online anonymity combined with deep surveillance threatens to allow an incumbent regime to act unopposed. This is why the Indian Supreme Court ordered the inquiry. The deadline for the report is in early 2022.

The court scheduled another hearing for after the submission.

Garan van Rensburg
Garan van Rensburg

Garan is a writer interested in how tech reshapes the environment, and how the environment reshapes tech. You'll usually find him inoculating against future shock and arguing with bots.