From Dr Hamid Hussain
Recent revelation about use of Pegasus software for surveillance of mobile phones by several governments surprised very few. It simply confirmed what most of us believe that surveillance is now part of modern life. This information is not new. In 2013, details about National Security Agency (NSA) running an electronic surveillance program on massive scale named PRISM became public. In 2012, information became public that a joint United States and Israeli cyber operation code named ‘Operation Olympic Games’ using an offensive computer virus Stuxnet damaged Iranian nuclear centrifuges at Natanz. Later, Wikileaks and revelations by Edward Snowdon about large scale surveillance all over the globe only highlighted the omnipresence of surveillance in our daily lives. United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia and Israel use extensive surveillance with state of the start equipment.
Pegasus is a commercial program sold by an Israeli company NSO. The name is derived from the first initials of company’s three founders; Niv Carmi, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie. It was first bought by a US based private equity firm. In 2018, when concerns emerged about the program it was sold to a London based group. Israel recognized the importance electronic and communication revolution early. The most authoritative account of Mossad was written by Gordon Thomas in 1999 titled Gideon’s Spies. Director General of Mossad Danny Yatom (1996-1998) recognized early the defensive and offensive opportunities in the brave new world of computers. He ordered research and development division to develop programs that could infiltrate computers for monitoring as well as electronic ‘microbes’ that could destroy the systems. Today, we know these ‘microbes’ as computer ‘viruses’.
Pegasus can infiltrate any mobile phone and gain access to contacts, phone calls, text messages and even take control of the microphone and camera for real time surveillance. The sales pitch for Pegasus was to fight crime and terrorism. However, there were concerns about its abuse by governments and NSO launched a public relations campaign to assure human rights groups. It sold Pegasus to governments of United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India and Mexico. In addition to criminals and terrorists, this program was also used for surveillance of political rivals, dissidents, diplomats, journalists and human right activists and organizations. Contrary to popular belief, Pegasus is not a mass surveillance program but a targeted one.
The company is based in Israel therefore a lot of negative fallout for Israel. Government tried to distance itself from NSO, but no one believes that Israeli government would have allowed sale of such program to foreign governments without access to data. Such technology sale is strictly controlled by Israeli government based on national security concerns. It is used as a diplomatic tool to win potential allies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used sale of such technology for improving relations with Saudi Arabia and Gulf sheikhdoms. Any Israeli government allowing sale of programs like Pegasus without having a trap door to have access to surveillance done by the clients of Pegasus will be charged with dereliction of duty. It is no surprise that countries like Russia and China develop their own programs. They may steal state of the art technology through industrial espionage but do not buy off the shelf products as it makes them vulnerable.
Public revelations of sale of surveillance technology to foreign clients by private Israeli companies is making many Israelis uncomfortable. They view such sales as damaging the Israeli brand. Israeli government has formed a high powered committee of Knesset to review the whole process of sale of surveillance technology. Now, many Israeli civil rights groups are also concerned about domestic surveillance. In Israel there are severe restrictions on surveillance of Jewish citizens of Israel but Arab citizens and Palestinians in occupied territories have no protection. Israeli society in general accepted this situation as a protective umbrella against extremist threats. Details of surveillance methods are not made public and elite Signal Intelligence (SIGINTEL) Unit 8200 is involved in this surveillance. In 2014, thirty four veterans of Unit 8200, now on reservist duty stunned Israel by writing a letter to Prime Minister refusing to serve in occupied territories. This letter highlighted the moral dilemma faced by those serving in this field.
Government decisions are guided by circumstances and there is risk of a slippery slope. There is no guarantee that government that asked for acquiescence of citizens in the name of security will not invoke an emergency to drag everybody in the net. The scare happened during the early phase of Corona pandemic. In March 2020, then Defence Minister Naftali Bennett proposed that Military Intelligence and NSO should be given the task of tracking Corona virus carriers. This meant transferring highly classified personal data of Israeli citizens collected by internal security organization Shin Bet to NSO. Knesset alarmed by this dangerous phenomenon vetoed the idea.
Surveillance and defensive and offensive cyber capabilities are part of modern national security apparatus. They are new weapons like fighter jets, tanks and missiles. Innovation is part of human story and not new, however, the revolution of modern technology is democratization of these tools. A high school dropout sitting in a dingy room with a cheap computer can bring down a hundred year old bank or turn off the electric grid of a mega city with few clicks on his keyboard. Society needs protection against these threats but also needs to put in place laws to prevent abuse by the government. Only an informed citizenry equipped with investigative tools and ever vigilance can ensure that their legitimate rights are protected at the same time when they give government the authority to use tools to protect them.
“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They are spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’. Philip K. Dick – Died 1982
25 July 2021