“When we heard the news about the Pegasus surveillance, we couldn’t sleep for five days. This was because we didn’t get hungry only. We would keep feeling watched, like someone was coming, someone was going to knock on our door. Not only me, my elderly mother who is around 70-years-old, would be very troubled.”
“Our mental state at the time was such that anytime a bike or a car would enter our ‘campus’ there would be panic. ‘What if they want to say something to my son, or my partner?’”, Rupesh Kumar Singh, told MediaNama what the first few days were like, after he learnt he was under Pegasus surveillance.
Dressed in a plaid, white button-down shirt, it is his first visit to New Delhi after news broke that he, his wife Ipsa Shatakshi and her sister (who has remained anonymous), were targeted by the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. Standing in the Jamia Millia Islamia campus, Singh who lives in rural Jharkhand with his wife, their 4-year-old son, parents, brother, sister-in-law, and their child, says tensions run high back home every time he is out. “Now that I’ve come to Delhi, I get calls from them asking whether I’m okay or not. Here in Delhi, people roam until 1 AM in the morning, and yesterday I was also out until 12AM meeting people. So they [his family] didn’t sleep. They said that they will sleep only after I get back to home,” he says, adding that his wife, who is a teacher, and is in school right now, must be worrying about where he is, and whether he is fine or not.
“If I switch off my phone and go somewhere, everyone at home be tense. It is even possible, because the phone tracks my location, that perhaps the police will also turn up asking about why did I switched off my phone” Singh says.
Sure enough, Shatakshi concurs with him in a call later with MediaNama. “Even over the phone we don’t ask him his accurate location because, irrespective of whether we understand or not, those surveilling him will definitely come to know his location”.
“Recently”, she adds, “he had to go to the airport to go to Delhi. Now normally, anyone would go and drop him. But now I am afraid of leaving him alone if I can help it. So, when he went to Delhi, even I went to drop him [to the airport], although I was feeling very tired that day. If the government has made you a target then they obviously feel threatened by you, in which case if they can see your location, what you are doing , whether you are alone or not. Then they can use it as they wish,” she says.
It has been nearly 10 months since they learnt about the surveillance and yet, the fear persists in their family.
“Now if you compromise my wife and her sister’s phones, even though my wife is a teacher and her sister is a law student, then you are targeting them to build mental pressure on me,” Singh tells MediaNama.
Since learning about the spyware, Shatakshi has increasingly felt stressed, she says, while Singh’s mother experiences spasms in her hands, which doctors say are because of stress.
The invasive spyware, created by the NSO group based in Tel Aviv, Israel can reportedly access and gain control of any Android or iOS mobile through a zero-click exploit thus activating the camera, microphone, accessing emails, WhatsApp chats, location, and so on. Apart from being victims of surveillance from the spyware, Singh and Shatakshi are also petitioners in the Supreme Court, challenging the use of the spyware, asking for details and punishment for those who used it to surveil them and more.
Beyond issues with the legality of such surveillance, this story is about the personal impact the two faced from the surveillance driving them to challenge it.
Previous experience with law enforcement and surveillance
This isn’t the first time Singh has found himself at odds with the State. In 2019, an Intelligence Bureau official revealed to Singh that his phone had been compromised, and revealed specific details about Singh’s activities.
“He mentioned where I was on a particular date, which no one knew otherwise, and I hadn’t even spoken about it on the phone. I had just carried my phone there. He mentioned my likes and dislikes, such as that I like fish, cigarettes, I wear wildcraft shoes. He said, ‘I thought you were a nature lover, a good journalist, very feisty but you have had a girlfriend’. So he knew what was happening in my personal life,” Singh said.
Singh who was arrested in 2019 on charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA) which allows for preventive detention of people ‘likely’ to strike terror, and is notoriously difficult to get bail under was released and cleared of those charges in six months, in 2020, when the investigating officer could not file a chargesheet in time. However, in the meantime, his family also bore the brunt of it.
“When they charged me under UAPA, I was living in Bokaro city (Jharkhand), in the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) quarters. These quarters are given to employees who further put it on rent. I was living on rent there. As soon as it emerged I was charged with UAPA, the next day the Superintendent of Police (SP) called the room owner and said ‘ask them to empty the room, we don’t keep terrorists here’. Overnight my entire family was on the streets. Tt was only a few friends who took us in at the time,” Singh says.
“So after this especially, even though my family had gone through such an experience before, we still couldn’t sleep for 4-5 days after news of Pegasus emerged,” he added.
Despite previous experiences family terrified, worried for Rupesh
“Now twice such incidents have happened, so how would they not know,” Singh says, with a chuckle when asked about how much his family is aware of his persecution. “When your phone gets compromised you lose your journalism contacts, your colleagues look at you with suspicion, and your family gets so scared especially when you have small children and when they have suffered because of your journalism before,” he adds.
“As soon as the news of surveillance came, my entire family gathered, because I was the only journalist targeted in Jharkhand and the only one in Hindi media as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, for Shatakshi, there is no longer any peace of mind, she says.
“After we learnt about Pegasus, my brothers look into the front camera of the phone and say ‘look, look I’m teasing you’, or ‘look I’m threatening you’- [as if at the person who is surveilling them]. So while there is fear, this also happens (laughs). There’s a lot of fear and caution: I don’t say on the phone that ‘Rupesh has left the house alone’, or that ‘he seems worried’. Who knows what if they (the person surveilling) land up over there. There are a lot of things I keep to myself that maybe I will say to someone when I meet people in person, and not over the phone. Because of this some things get left out too,” Shatakshi says.
However there’s anger Shatakshi feels about the surveillance as well. “We haven’t even given this right to invade our privacy to our parents, or to the neighbours that we are close to. So, who gave them [whoever was surveilling] the right to invade it? We don’t want to lose our privacy. We don’t want to do everything in front of everyone. But what happened on my phone, that they could see me completely, that was very dangerous. I was angry but I was also scared,” she said.
Despite a self-admitted lack of belief in the courts, it was a belief in Rupesh’s work and ethics that led Shatakshi to join him in petitioning the Supreme Court in the matter. “There was one reason to support Rupesh which is that he does not work for his own greed, or for some individual. I am afraid that such people – not just my life partner – but all those select few people like him will be eliminated.”
“Our privacy has been violated. I would want that it be revealed who authorised imt and they be punished so that no one in the future can dare to repeat it,” Shatakshi said.
Earnings halved after reports about surveillance, while expenses increase
According to Rupesh, his earnings have more than halved while his expenses have increased after news of the surveillance emerged. This is because of multiple reasons, he says:
Alienation by bigger publications: “There are a lot of these publications – who we call alternate media – now don’t want to publish my reports. A major English publication referred to a report of mine in something they had published, but they will not publish my original reportage,” he said. “I have come to Delhi, and have been unable to meet any of the editors I used to meet earlier. It’s not that we didn’t meet earlier. Earlier we used to speak a lot, when they weren’t that big,” he added.
“Things were good earlier, I would earn at least Rs 20,000-25,000 a month. Now it has become less than Rs 10,000 because most of the publications don’t want to take the stories. So I have to send them to smaller publications. They give me Rs 2,000 for a story. My contacts have also reduced. So 4-5 stories a month are a lot for me now. Also, I have to travel into jungles for my stories,” he says.
Losing contacts in Jharkhand: “The contacts I had built have all exhausted. Earlier I used to cover the entire state of Jharkhand. [I had so much work that] I wouldn’t get any time. Now those contacts don’t help me. I am cultivating new contacts now,” he says.
Travel expenses have increased: Earlier Singh would travel by a scooter wherever he wanted to report from. However, after learning about the Pegasus surveillance, “I feel scared. I avoid going anywhere alone.” This restricts his movements. Previously he used to sit in sleeper class while traveling by trains. He now opts for the Third Class AC compartments. “It’s only psychological. I feel like since there are fewer people, Third AC is safer,” he said. Thus, “my expenses have increased. Money was already limited. Now it’s even less,” he says.
Surveillance prevented him from reporting
“There’s an area in Ranchi where some indigenous people had converted to Christianity. After a few days, when the rest of the village realised this, they socially boycotted the 5-6 homes that had undergone conversion. They didn’t let them buy essentials from the shops or draw water from the well. So I pitched this report and I went there – the police force was already present there. The locals told me police had never come there before, but because I was going to come they arrived earlier and told everyone not to talk to me about the social boycott,” Singh said.
After learning about Pegasus, Singh has stopped sending email pitches to publications. “I go [to the location] straight, report, and send the report off to publications, because I think if I send a pitch then the police will learn about it beforehand, and prevent me from reporting. My email is also compromised, and I cannot keep changing it” he says.
“Now we’ve learnt about Pegasus, but who knows what else is on our phones. We’ve got to know about the spyware on my phone. May be it is in yours too. I mean, anyone’s phone can now be compromised by the looks of how artificial intelligence is expanding,” he added.
“You cannot save yourself from your phone..”
Apart from being careful about his emails, there are other steps that Singh has also taken to rebuild his contacts. Often if he has to speak with someone who would like to keep themselves anonymous, he keeps his phone far away or covers it with something or even asks them not to call, to protect their privacy. He keeps his phone in a separate room or area, away from where they are talking, he says.
Meanwhile for his personal purposes, he keeps his phone away at night, and only at a designated spot from where he has to take calls.
However, he says, there is no way to fully avoid the phone. “Today’s world is such that, for a reporter, it is difficult to protect themselves from their phone. This is because you have to do everything through it – make videos, use WhatsApp, use Twitter, use your Emails- how will you save yourself? In today’s date your privacy can be finished, but you cannot save yourself from your phone. It has become a necessity”.
In brief: What Rupesh and Ipsa’s petition asks for
In their petition, the couple demanded that the Supreme Court of India issue the following directions for the Union government:
- Declare installation and/or use of malware or spyware such as Pegasus illegal and unconstitutional, and ultra vires Part III of the Indian Constitution.
- Disclose materials and documents regarding an investigation, and orders pertaining to the use of Pegasus before the SC and the petitioners.
- Undertake steps to protect Indian citizens from the use of cyberweapons/malware such as Pegasus.
- Put in place a judicial oversight mechanism to deal with any complaints on illegal breaches of privacy and hacking
- Punish all government officials responsible for such breaches.
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