For the past few days journalists across the globe have been on their toes. Courtesy: the Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group’s spyware Pegasus, which created global headlines and sparked political controversies for unprecedented surveillance capabilities.
Pegasus snoopgate has created ripples across India too. In a shocking revelation, phone numbers of more than forty journalists in India were on the list of potential targets of the spyware, as per a reporting consortium that includes The Wire. Pegasus allows its customers to infiltrate mobile phones and monitor messages, camera feeds, and microphones. Later it also came to the fore that several Kashmiris were on the list.
More than twenty-five people from the Kashmir Valley were selected as potential targets of intrusive surveillance between 2017 and mid-2019 by an as-yet unidentified client of the Israeli company.
In August 2019, New Delhi had detained nearly all of the political leadership and clamped curfews as it revoked the region’s decades-long limited autonomy.
Among the potential targets are Kashmiri journalists, politicians from both mainstream and pro-freedom camp, as well as businessmen, and activists.
The Wire reported that the Hurriyat leader Bilal Lone’s phone data was examined by Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Even though this phone set was not the same as the one he used at the time his phone was potentially targeted as per the leaked database, forensic analysis revealed signs of Pegasus targeting.
The signs appear in 2019, and are likely the outcome of a process initiated by an India-based client of the NSO Group. Others on the leaked database include at least two members of the family of Mehbooba Mufti, the People’s Democratic party (PDP) chief and the last chief minister of J-K.
J-K Apni Party president Altaf Bukhari’s brother Tariq Bukhari also makes an appearance in the list and was of considerable interest to the agency which added his name between 2017 and 2019.
In addition, at least four family members of Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s family were of consistent interest to the Indian client of the NSO group between 2017 and 2019. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Molvi Masroor Ansari also find a spot on the list.
While the Pegasus story has taken over the news cycle across the globe, with journalists calling it an unprecedented leak and India’s Watergate moment, referring to a major political scandal in the US involving the administration of the U.S. President Richard Nixon from 1972 to 1974 that led to Nixon’s resignation.
However, in Kashmir, people did not care much; both journalists and citizens were least bothered. “This is nothing new for us, our phones have always been on the radar of agencies,” said a journalist, requesting anonymity out of fear of reprisal. “Also, forces personnel can examine anyone’s phone at any time.”
In Kashmir, surveillance and the crackdown on information by the state’s agencies has been a routine, often leading to harassment of those carrying anti-state content in their gadgets.
Journalists and activists, who can potentially own sensitive data on victims of the stateled violence, being summoned by the government forces are often told to surrender their phones that are later checked by them, multiple sources told The Kashmir Walla.
A south Kashmir based lawyer, Habeel Iqbal, was summoned by the police last year. Iqbal while posting a picture of his phone’s backside tweeted: “This is why #Pegasus is not needed in #Kashmir. Forces call you to the Police station, take your phone, write the passcode on its back & keep it with them for hours together. Saves time and resources.
P.S. This was done with my phone last year in June.”
Umar Lateef Misgar, a doctoral researcher and journalist, describing the surveillance in Kashmir wrote: “In Kashmir, Pegasus has been ingrained in our mind, like a Benthamite panopticon, like in a colony. ‘Yim asenai bozan,’ (they’re listening), my mother says everytime I talk about politics on the phone.”
‘Yi karo phone manz delete,’ (Delete this from your phone) we think, before every checkpoint, before every download,” he added.
The leaked list of potential targets includes the numbers of top journalists at big media houses including the Hindustan Times, India Today, Network18, The Hindu, and The Indian Express, and The Wire itself.
The analysis of the leaked data showed that most of the names were targeted between 2018 and 2019, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha general elections. The names on the list also included political rivals, including Rahul Gandhi, and advisors.
Gandhi, according to The Guardian, was listed twice as a potential surveillance target, making him one of hundreds of Indian politicians, journalists, activists, and government opponents whose phones were identified as possible targets for the Israeli company’s government clients.
While the Pegasus has rattled feathers across the world, however, the slow erosion of the media attention in India and the government’s continuous denial tells us not to expect much. But in Kashmir, after years of perpetual crackdown, people are least concerned about the Pegasus snoopgate infecting their phones and more about the next checkpoint.