India loves to describe herself as the world’s largest democracy, and Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East. Yet opaque officials and executives in both countries have come together in a dark dance against democracy.
Indian journalists, top political leaders, judges and civil servants sworn to protect our constitution were subjected to an intrusive surveillance campaign, a "hijacking" of our phones, by military grade surveillance spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO.
I am an investigative journalist, and for two years, I was one of the targets of that invasive Pegasus spyware. In other words, for two years, aided by Israeli technology, my own government was snooping on me.
The spyware called Pegasus is marketed for use against terrorists and drug lords. It is so powerful and intrusive that it is sold only to governments, according to NSO, and every sale requires a sign off from the government of Israel itself. And according to Forbidden Stories, the not-for-profit media organization that, in partnership with a consortium of global publications, broke the story about the reach and misuse of the spyware, once the spyware was deployed our phones were, in effect, weaponized against us.
So why did the Modi government decide to treat me like the head of a crime syndicate, or a bloodthirsty terrorist?
Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 he, like many strongman leaders around the world, has treated the free press with disdain bordering on contempt. During the seven years Modi has been in power (he’s now in his second term) he has never once held a press conference. This is a first in the history of India's democracy: all prime ministers before him made themselves available for scrutiny by the free press.
In many ways, Modi was a trendsetter in using social media, bypassing traditional media, to reach out to voters and control the political narrative, first as the state of Gujarat’s Chief Minister and later as candidate for the premiership. Yet the same pioneering spirit led to a deeply problematic usage of Twitter which has outsize political influence in India, with a user base and reach estimated at between 18 million and 100 million.
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- Israel's shame: NSO and Pegasus are a danger to democracy around the world
- How Israeli spy-tech became dictators' weapon of choice
Starting in 2014, I and other journalists were savagely trolled for asking questions (our job) about the government’s policies and behavior. Women journalists in particular were targeted: we were sent rape threats, pornographic pictures and subjected to vile slander about "affairs" with opposition leaders. Our "rates" as prostitutes were discussed.
As an investigative journalist, the only way I could retaliate against this daily, horrific abuse was to investigate it. I delved into the Bharatiya Janata Party’s social media operations for two years, turned an abusive troll into a source, and discovered that the party in power was paying to have dissenting citizens targeted for abusive and concerted pile-ons.
The result of my work was a book, "I am a Troll: Inside the BJP’s Secret Digital Army," which established incontrovertibly that BJP-directed trolls, called yodhas (warriors) attacked all critics of Modi in a synchronized fashion, and that the ruling party used troll farms to shut up critics.
The trolls pushed rape and death threats, as well as communal incitement against India’s Muslim community to incite riots. From inflaming rioters using fake news to organizing boycott campaigns against Bollywood movie actors like Aamir Khan (who, together with his wife, Kiran Rao, had expressed alarm at rising intolerance in India, and was then accused by the BJP of participating in a "political conspiracy to defame India"), the trolls did it all.
Modi even outplayed Donald Trump’s worst Twitter excesses: he openly followed the trolls responsible for threatening violence and rape and participated in incitement too. One troll followed by Modi celebrated the cold-blooded murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in September 2107 by tweeting: "A bitch has died and her puppies are crying." Despite the justified outrage, Modi has yet to unfollow a single abusive Twitter account.
Perhaps it was my book, which won a Reporters without Borders prize for courage, which triggered the Modi government’s decision to hack my phone. Perhaps it was the investigative stories about disturbing conflicts of interests in his party and government, or the reporting on allegations of corruption relating to the multibillion dollar deal for French Rafale fighter jets, which made the government decide I should be treated like a terrorist.
I would love to say that, having won a prize for courageous reporting, I indeed have indomitable courage in my everyday life. But I am an independent journalist, without any institutional security. I put my family, my loved ones, even my dogs at risk every time I expose a wrong doing connected to India’s power centers.
The Modi government is unforgiving. I have had job offers dry up, my government accreditation withdrawn, a talk I was to give in a foreign embassy canceled, repeated and unfounded harassment by the tax authorities, and a social media profile contaminated by slander and defamation.
I am passionate about my job but I did not sign up for this kind of intimidation – or this kind of intrusive surveillance. When my phone’s microphone and camera could be remotely controlled to invade my own privacy and that of my loved ones; where I have to consider the grotesque idea that even the privacy of my own bedroom could have become gratuitous viewing for those spying on me.
I still get chills thinking about the independent forensic analysis which revealed that an earlier phone of mine was infected with Pegasus, and my current phone also showed infected logs. The outrage, the incredible hurt, that your own country did this to you, hits you each day afresh. I broke down and cried when I told my father about the surveillance. I wanted to be comforted for what had been done to me.
I will never give up being an investigative journalist. And I think only cowards, drunk on such absolute power, act in such paranoid ways. I also wonder what on earth has happened to my own country’s national security priorities. Surely China, which has intruded into our sovereign territory, would have been a worthy target for my government, not me.
The abuse of spyware has gone viral in the Indian government. It is perpetrator, judge and jury. Forensic investigation has revealed that malware was planted in activists’ computers, which then became the evidence to hold them in jail without bail under draconian anti-terror laws. I still get nightmares thinking the government could have used Pegasus to plant such malware in my phone and put me in prison, and I would have had no recourse.
And I am angry at the Israeli government for licensing such a reckless sale of spyware that so obviously invites weaponization and abuse by a government in India that can fairly be described as embracing digital authoritarianism. Why is Israel’s NSO group allowed to get away with, allegedly, offering its clients around the world the possibility of targeting more than 50,000 phones, including 300 in India?
The truth is very different from the high-minded talk coming from NSO, that its advanced spyware is a path for progress against drastic national security threats and crime.
The toxic cyberweapon they sell, and the shadowy, implausible process they, and the Israeli government, follow to ensure it is not abused, have created for authoritarian leaders a vector for surveillance, the invasion of privacy, the intimidation and prosecution of the free press and even, in the wrong hands, murder.
For the sake of its relations with the democracy camp in India and around the world, Israel needs to shut down NSO and companies like it.
Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist. She regularly contributes investigative stories and analysis to NDTV.com and Gulf News, and is a frequent political commentator on television. She is the author of "I am a Troll: Inside the BJP’s Secret Digital Army" (2016). Twitter: @bainjal