Pegasus Surveillance Is ‘Deeply Concerning’ For Women Who Speak Up Against Powerful Men, Activists Say
In an incisive letter about the deleterious effects of illegal surveillance, a group of 500 activists and academics have appealed to the Chief Justice of India to demand “time-bound answers” from the government about the use of Pegasus spyware.
The letter particularly raises questions about the alleged snooping on a Supreme Court staffer who accused ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019, according to LiveLaw.
“For women, the Pegasus scandal is deeply concerning, for speaking out against the state and men in positions of state power has meant that their lives are wrecked by such surveillance permanently. Human rights defenders have been imprisoned, and victims of sexual harassment have also not been spared such shocking forms of state-sponsored cyber-crimes, which are analogous to digital forms of state terror,” the letter noted.
Earlier this month, an investigation by The Wire showed the woman complainant, along with her family members, was on a list of targets that were allegedly being spied on through Pegasus, a spyware that can hack into smartphones and even take control of it. What was more damning was these numbers were placed on the surveillance list after she filed an affidavit outlining her sexual harassment complaint before the Supreme Court.
“How can any woman in India ever be expected to pursue a complaint against a hierarchical superior in the face of the chilling possibility that this may expose her and her loved ones to such a sinister criminal invasion of privacy?” the activists noted.
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The alleged snooping not only implies an invasion of privacy but also questions the legality of the investigation carried out by the Supreme Court in 2019. “That entire process now stands vitiated by the possibility that she and her family’s telephones might have been monitored on the instructions of senior officials,” The Wire noted in its report.
The investigation has raised pertinent questions about data protection and privacy laws in India, along with sexual harassment regulations that are often criticized for putting survivors at a disadvantage.
Surveillance is inherently a gendered issue. “By gendering surveillance, we can really bring home the harms of surveillance. Indeed, surveillance of women is a long-standing practice in our society as elsewhere – and one that women from all castes, classes, and religions are too familiar with, even if it affects them differently.” Anja Kovacs, in an introduction on her Gendering Surveillance website, noted.
Radhika Radhakrishnan also observed the high stakes involved when it comes to such a practice: “Misuse of this data would not just be a data violation, but could easily extend to voyeurism, slut-shaming, and predatory actions, which threaten a woman’s bodily integrity.”
The letter joins a growing body of citizens, politicians, and activists seeking an independent, transparent probe into India’s alleged purchase and use of the spyware. So far, the government has dismissed these claims but hasn’t explicitly commented on whether it purchased the spyware or not.
“Above all, we look to the Supreme Court to declare a moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of Pegasus in India,” the signatories wrote in the letter.