‘It doesn’t matter what flag you live under, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, we all have skin in this game,’ Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower said in the aftermath of the findings of the Pegasus Project raising questions about large-scale cyber-surveillance done by regimes all over the world.
Snowden, a former NSA employee became a whistleblower when he went public in 2013 revealing several large-scale surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency of America. He lived in Russia under the right to asylum and was granted permanent residency in the country in 2020.
In an interview talking about the nature and implications of governments employing the NSA-built spyware Pegasus, Snowden told The Guardian, ‘Their only products are infection vectors. They’re not security products. They’re not providing any kind of protection, any kind of prophylactic. They don’t make vaccines – the only thing they sell is the virus.’
A few days ago, the findings of Pegasus Project, an investigation by an international media consortium into the clientele of the NSO Group, an Israeli company that creates spyware for surveillance were released by over 16 media organisations globally.
The findings show that almost 50,000 from all across the world were targeted by the NSO spyware called Pegasus. Since the NSO Group clarified that the spyware is only sold to sovereign governments, the fingers are now towards various regimes including India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Azerbaijan, etc.
The use of commercial spyware allows the user to surveillance the target subtly and without having to take the risk of going in close contact with them unlike previously used bugs and spy cameras. ‘If they can do the same thing from a distance, with little cost and no risk, they begin to do it all the time, against everyone who’s even marginally of interest,’ Snowden said.
In India itself, around 300 phones numbers were targeted and this included the phone numbers of journalists, opposition leaders, human rights defenders, social activists, and even high-ranking government officials, many of whom have been critical of the ruling Modi regime.
‘Pegasus is more dangerous than previously known methods of surveillance’
Snowden further explained that the recent revelations are more dangerous than what has been known of espionage previously because things have gone beyond just the level of spying and the commercial use of certain categories of personal data by big tech like Facebook.
He emphasised that the contemporary situation has larger implications because now the spyware is not merely stealing data but has acquired complete control of the phones and is turning the phones against the people who actually paid for them but ‘don’t actually own it anymore.’
He said that the findings of the investigation are only about the clients of one malware company but there is an entire market that thrives on making technology that invades privacy to benefit corporates and governments. ‘They are doing that and they are selling that and that is a knowing, intentional, willful attack on critical infrastructure that every one of us relies on,’ he said. If this kind of technology is not prevented from existing as commodities in the market, the targets won’t be 50,000 phones, it would be 50 million.
‘We have to stop this, inaction is no longer an option’
Answering the questions of safety measures that individuals can take against the employment of spyware to the likes of Pegasus, Snowden said, ‘this is not a problem that we want to try and solve individually because it’s you vs a billion-dollar company’ and the only way is for us to ‘work collectively’ to ‘change the game’
‘The way we do that is to halt the trade around this technology’ because it threatens everyone and it’s just a matter of time that one gets attacked by one of these spywares.
He reiterated that there is no middle ground where this technology can be utilised ethically. ‘This is an industry that should not exist,’ he asserted