The reports of alleged surveillance of journalists, activists, and political leaders' devices using the Pegasus spyware, which has now become a global debate on data security, has highlighted a significant concern- that spyware capable of intruding into someone's digital space is now open for sale.
The maker of Pegasus spyware, Israel-based NSO Group, has so far denied all the allegations. But there's no going around the fact that such high-end techniques are no longer exclusive to concerned and responsible authorities. The usage of this technology by these agents is also a contentious discussion.
This can be understood by analysing that not too long ago, it took a fair share of effort to tap or follow someone. There were proper documentation, permissions and gadgets involved. However now, if the allegations are proved true, all it takes is one simple spyware.
The unfettered growth of digitization and processing of all personal/professional data into a digital device is also responsible for this phenomenon to an extent.
However, the main cause of concern is that the techniques and remote surveillance powers that were initially in some hands have now become a global property, not just with states but even with individuals and small groups, sometimes violent.
What prompted the commercialisation of digital surveillance techniques?
According to a BBC report, former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 talked about the power of US and UK intelligence agencies to tap into global communications.
While Snowden fairly noted that these agencies were also highly responsible and worked within the frame of a democratic setup, this conversation prompted many small ambitious nations and institutions to use the same techniques and tools.
This is where such spyware makers came into the picture. Companies, like NSO Group, often formed by veterans of the intelligence world, have been among those to commercialise digital surveillance techniques.
Why is commercialisation of these tools a problem?
While companies like NSO say they only sell their spyware for use against serious criminals and terrorists. But the real problem is how you define the realms of terrorism and crime?
It is a highly subjective matter. Many nations with the elevation of more authoritarian leaders and systems have started terming dissent, raised mainly by journalists and activists, under criminal and seditious, even terrorist activities sometimes. This sob story can easily be sold to NSO-like companies to attain surveillance for these aforementioned agents.
This way highly commmercialising these device tapping techniques is a threat to the very institution of democracy.
Not a lot can be said at this time, but a universal system for governments, institutes and even intelligence agencies to developed and attain the access to such tools seem like a reasonable option.
The Pegasus controversy erupted when a report published by many prominent news websites, including the Guardian and the Washington Post, suggested that several journalists, news personalities, and global political leaders were made the target of an attempted hack. The reports say that over 10 governments, including India's, were involved in surveillance of people using Pegasus spyware.