March 1, 2024

Lukmaan IAS

A Blog for IAS Examination

PEGASUS SPYWARE TARGETING JOURNALISTS IN INDIA

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TAG: GS 2: POLITY GS : 3 INTERNAL SECURITY

THE CONTEXT: The Washington Post and Amnesty International alleged the continued use of Pegasus spyware targeting journalists in India.

EXPLANATION:

  • In October 2023, a forensic analysis revealed that the phones of Siddharth Varadarajan (founding editor of The Wire) and Anand Mangnale (South Asia editor of OCCRP) were infected with Pegasus.
  • These findings emerged after Apple issued security notifications to certain users, including MPs, about state-sponsored attacks on iPhones.
  • Amnesty International’s Security Lab examined the infected devices and found evidence of Pegasus activity.
  • They identified a “zero-click exploit” sent through iMessage to of OOCRP editor’s iPhone on August 23.
  • This exploit facilitated the covert installation of Pegasus.

ZERO-CLICK EXPLOIT AND BLASTPAST MECHANISM

  • A zero-click exploit allows spyware installation without user consent or action.
  • BLASTPAST, a specific exploit allegedly used, operates in two phases:
    • attempting a link with Apple HomeKit and
    • sending malicious content through iMessage.
  • The first phase aims to exploit the device or monitor it for future exploitation, while the second phase delivers the full spyware “payload.”

NSO’s Response

  • NSO, the company behind Pegasus, stressed that its technology is licensed to vetted law enforcement and intelligence agencies for fighting terrorism and major crime.
  • They claim policies and contracts prevent targeting journalists, lawyers, or human rights defenders not involved in serious crimes, asserting no visibility over targets or collected intelligence.

Previous Incidents and Responses

  • In July 2021, the ‘Pegasus Project’ exposed possible surveillance of journalists, ministers, and constitutional positions in India using Pegasus.
  • A database of 50,000 phone numbers suggested NSO Group clients’ interest.
  • A Supreme Court committee investigated these allegations, finding the Indian government non-cooperative.
  • In response to petitions alleging mass surveillance, the Centre refused detailed disclosure, citing national security concerns.

Analysis and Implications

  • Persistent Targeting of Journalists
    • The recurrence of Pegasus allegations targeting journalists raises concerns about press freedom and privacy breaches.
    • The use of zero-click exploits demonstrates sophisticated surveillance capabilities, enabling surreptitious surveillance without user interaction.
  • National Security vs. Transparency
    • The clash between demands for transparency and national security concerns poses challenges.
    • While activists seek accountability through detailed disclosure, governments may invoke national security as grounds for limited transparency, sparking debates about the balance between surveillance for security purposes and citizen rights.
  • Legal and Ethical Concerns
    • NSO’s assertion of vetting customers and restricting targeting to combat crime contrasts with reported surveillance of journalists and activists.
    • The ethical implications of such surveillance and the potential misuse of surveillance tools for suppressing dissent warrant international scrutiny and potential legal ramifications.
  • Judicial and Investigative Repercussions
    • The ongoing investigations by the Supreme Court and international bodies reflect attempts to address these allegations.
    • The findings of these inquiries may influence policies regarding surveillance technology, accountability frameworks for intelligence agencies, and privacy safeguards for journalists and citizens.

Pegasus Spyware

  • Pegasus is a malware/spyware developed by Israel’s NSO Group.
  • The spyware suite is designed to access any smartphone through zero-click vulnerabilities remotely.
  • Once a phone is infiltrated, the spyware can access entire data on that particular phone.
  • It also has real-time access to emails, texts, phone calls, as well as the camera and sound recording capabilities of the smartphone.

Conclusion

  • The allegations surrounding Pegasus spyware targeting journalists in India continue to raise significant ethical, legal, and privacy concerns.
  • The clash between national security interests and demands for transparency.
  • It underscores the complexity of balancing surveillance for security purposes with safeguarding fundamental rights, necessitating further scrutiny, accountability, and policy adjustments to protect privacy and press freedom.

SOURCE: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/is-pegasus-spyware-targeting-journalists-in-india/article67683399.ece/amp/

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