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  Opinion   Columnists  04 Aug 2021  Mohan Guruswamy | Who’s behind Pegasus… and why it’s no big deal

Mohan Guruswamy | Who’s behind Pegasus… and why it’s no big deal

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Aug 5, 2021, 1:58 am IST
Updated : Aug 5, 2021, 1:58 am IST

The only difference between them and NSO is that the Israeli company is a white-black operation

An official intelligence agency like the IB, RAW, DGMI and a few others can get official sanction to tap all manner of telephones. (Twitter Photo)
 An official intelligence agency like the IB, RAW, DGMI and a few others can get official sanction to tap all manner of telephones. (Twitter Photo)

Hello! Big Brother is Listening.

Parliament has come to a halt because of the Pegasus affair. The winged horse is a malware designed to enter your smartphone when you open a message from an unknown source. Once installed in a phone, Pegasus can intercept and steal more or less any information on it, including SMSes, contacts, call history, calendars, emails and browsing histories. It can use the phone’s microphone to record calls and other conversations, secretly film with its camera, or track movements with GPS. All this is reported to the Pegasus licencee who would have paid at least $650,000 to make up to 10 smartphones to report to it. A typical buyer of Pegasus would be a secretive government agency, a private corporation or even a criminal organisation.

But the owner of Pegasus, the NSO Group of Israel, claims it only sells to kosher outfits and our government wants us to believe it. Government intelligence and investigative agencies routinely tap telephones as it’s their job to keep their masters well informed, particularly when the masters have a taste for low level gossip grade information. But let me tell you this, Pegasus is not such a big deal. There are dozens of hackers operating out of Russia, Israel, the United States and even the likes of North Korea who take control of smartphones and information technology networks for blackmail and extortion. The only difference between them and NSO is that the Israeli company is a white-black operation!

It is very apparent Pegasus was bought by an off the book intelligence operation from within the government. An official intelligence agency like the IB, RAW, DGMI and a few others can get official sanction to tap all manner of telephones. All they need is an authorisation from the Union home secretary to do so. It does not require much to persuade any home secretary to affix his signature to one. An agency that can do this will not expend so much money on Pegasus to track a few individuals, with a system that can’t do much more than what is already within their reach. To get a good idea of who bought Pegasus one needs to just track new expenditures by government offices like the PMO. For instance, in 2017, though the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) was allotted Rs 33 crores, it ended up spending Rs 81 crores more. In 2018, the allocation had shot up to Rs 333 crores. What was the PMO splurging on, when the NSCS is just a talking shop and occasionally turns out position papers and advisory papers?

There are 3.2 billion smartphones working connecting people with huge reservoirs of information and content. As of June 30, 2021, there were 4.86 billion Internet users worldwide. Of these, 44.8 per cent were in Asia, 21.5 per cent in Europe and 11.4 per cent in all of North America. This has led to new forms of business and new forms of doing business. With that small gizmo in your hand, that often nowadays packs more power than a bank of personal computers a dozen years ago, you can buy an airline ticket in another continent or send flowers to a special friend in yet another one. There can be other less benign uses also. A terrorist can detonate a secreted bomb in a distant country with a mobile phone call.

Since data exchanged on cellular and Internet networks fly through the ether and not as pulses racing through copper wires, they are easier to net by electronic interception. But these nets catch them in huge numbers. Unlike before when the signals to be intercepted and deciphered were a few, now you had millions to sort out and analyse for content and patterns. This is where the supercomputers come in. The messages that are netted every moment are run through sieves of sophisticated and complex computer programs that can simultaneously decode, detect and unravel, and by further analysing the incoming and outgoing patterns of calls and data transfers for the sending and receiving terminals or phones, can with a fair probability of accuracy tell the agency seeking information about what is going on and who is up to what?

Non-government parties can access this information by other means. A few years ago we had the case of the infamous Amar Singh CDs, which titillated so many with its graphic content and lowbrow conversations featuring the likes of Anil Ambani, Jayaprada, Bipasha Basu and some others. Then we had the episode of the Niira Radia tapes where we were privy to the machinations of the Tatas’ corporate lobbyist in the national capital fixing policy, positioning ministers and string-pulling media stars.

In 2002, interrogators heard a top Al Qaeda courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti from Mohammed al-Qahtani, a detainee interrogated in a secret rendition camp in Poland. In 2004, another prisoner named Hassan Gul claimed that al-Kuwaiti was close to Osama bin Laden as well as to Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Mohammed’s successor Abu Faraj al-Libbi. The CIA began to look for al-Kuwaiti and in 2007, officials learned that al-Kuwaiti’s real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, and he was a Pathan from Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The CIA had a clutch of phone numbers that were used sometime or the other by Al Qaeda couriers. For most of the time these numbers would remain shut. They would come to life very briefly to pass very terse messages or have very short conversations. In one of these conversations, al-Kuwaiti told his friend that he “is now working with the people he was with before”. This was enough of a break for the CIA to put him under full-time physical surveillance. A satellite picked him up in Karachi and tracked him. This led to him and his brother Abrar with their families to that now very famous house in Abbottabad. The tracking down of Osama bin Laden to his hideout was probably one of the great detective stories of the age.

But Pegasus is not being used for detecting where Dawood Ibrahim or Masood Azhar are holed up. Our D Company is more interested in low-level political gossip and for stalking. Remember that lady whose movements were tracked by the Gujarat police and reported to a jealous lonely heart. These things were possible even without Pegasus.

Tags: pegasus, white-black operation