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Need for investigating Pegasus scandal reiterated by top officials in both EU and UN

The EU commissioner condemned the surveillance carried out using Pegasus even as the same scandal unfolds in India.

“Any indication that intrusion of privacy actually occurred needs to be thoroughly investigated and all responsible for a possible breach have to be brought to justice,” EU Commissioner Didier Reynders told MEPs at the start of a debate in the European parliament on the Pegasus spyware scandal, according to The Guardian. He said that the European Union’s executive branch condemned alleged attempts by national security agencies to spy on political adversaries illegally, the report added.

Reynders said that a pending EU privacy regulation would tighten the rules further and called for MEPs and the member states to urgently agree on the details of that new law in light of the spyware scandal, The Guardian reported. 

“This is, of course, the responsibility of each and every member state of the EU, and I expect that in the case of Pegasus, the competent authorities will thoroughly examine the allegations and restore trust,” he was quoted as saying in the report. 

The former Belgian justice minister added that the EU’s executive branch was also closely following an investigation by Hungary’s data protection authority into claims that Viktor Orbán’s far-right government had deployed Pegasus spyware against journalists, media owners, and opposition political figures. 

The Pegasus exposé carried out by a consortium of 17 media organisations, which is led by Forbidden Stories with forensic analysis by Amnesty International, has severe ramifications on issues pertaining to privacy and surveillance around the world.

The exposé revealed a leaked database of numbers including that of French President Emmanuel Macron, and European Council President Charles Michel, along with other heads of state and senior government, diplomatic and military officials, in 34 countries. It is important to note that the spyware is classified as a cyber weapon to be sold exclusively to government clients, according to the NSO Group. Germany revealed that the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) bought Pegasus spyware from the Israeli firm in 2019. Moreover, illegal spying is a crime in all of the European Union.

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Key takeaways from remarks on Pegasus by UN’s Human Rights Commissioner

Speaking to the EU’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights on September 14, UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said that her office was not surprised by recent revelations documenting the widespread use of the Pegasus spyware.

Garb of national security

  • “The targeting of human rights defenders, journalists and politicians is just another example of how tools allegedly meant to address security risks can end up being weaponized against people with dissenting opinions,” Bachelet said at the committee’s hearing on the implications of the Pegasus spyware.
  • “Governments and companies have developed numerous surveillance tools, citing real security threats and noting the urgent need to fight criminal activity online and offline. And this surveillance industry has thrived in the absence of minimal levels of regulation and control at both national and global levels,” she warned. 
  • “The prevailing opacity and lack of regulation created the perfect conditions for broad security claims to be translated into new measures of repression. Without minimal safeguards and control, expensive and highly intrusive technologies will continue to be used to monitor voices regarded as critical or hostile at home and abroad,” she said. 

Surveillance and Human Rights

  • “Today’s unprecedented level of surveillance across the globe by state and private actors is incompatible with human rights,” Michelle Bachelet said.   
  • “States have not only the duty to refrain from these abuses, but also the duty to protect individuals from them. This can be done by establishing robust legislation and institutional regimes to make States meet their human rights obligations and companies meet their own responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights,” she advised. 
  • “The recent revelations of repeated malware abuse were a wake-up call. The wide and continued impact of the spyware market makes the implementation of these human rights recommendations more pressing. It is time for authorities to finally rein in the surveillance industry,” she declared. 

Mitigating measures

  • “It is time for a pause. As human rights experts have already emphasised, until compliance with human rights standards can be guaranteed, governments should implement a moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance technology,” Michelle Bachelet urged. 
  • “Limited accountability for abuses has also contributed to the problem. States must conduct impartial investigations on cases of targeted surveillance. Victims must be informed and supported to seek redress,” she concluded. 

How has the Pegasus scandal unfolded in India?

The net of the victims of the alleged spyware attack using Pegasus features more than 300 Indians according to The Wire. Many of them are journalists, politicians, academicians, academics, bureaucrats, and security officials. 

Some of the names include: 

  • MK Venu
  • Sushant Singh
  • Siddharth Varadarajan
  • Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
  • Rohini Singh
  • Rahul Gandhi
  • Prashant Kishor
  • Abhishek Banerjee
  • Ashwini Vaishnaw
  • Ashok Lavasa
  • Rona Wilson
  • Sudha Bhardwaj
  • Soni Sori
  • Umar Khalid 
  • Bela Bhatia
  • Jagdeep Chhokar
  • Gagandeep Kang
  • Alok Verma
  • Kumaresan

The Union government has consistently avoided confirming that it licensed Pegasus. Moreover, it has dismissed the allegations as exaggerated and sensational. It has also not initiated any investigation into the purported surveillance causing outrage among the opposition and civil society at large. 

There are nine petitions filed before the Supreme Court of India which is set to pass interim orders in the case following a hearing on September 13. 

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