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Note: A shorter version of this piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.
Apple Inc suing the Israeli company NSO Group for the illegal surveillance of iPhone users via the Pegasus spyware has serious ramifications for the ongoing investigation by a committee appointed by the Supreme Court. It underlines the enormity of what happened ― military grade surveillance was indeed used in India and elsewhere to illegally track Opposition politicians, activists, journalists, judges etc.
More importantly, Apple has lent credibility to the methods used by Toronto University’s Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech to determine traces of Pegasus in infected iPhones from various countries, including India (and including those of journalists at The Wire).
The company statement says, “Apple commends groups like the Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech for their groundbreaking work to identify cyber-surveillance abuses and help protect victims. To further strengthen efforts like these, Apple will be contributing $10 million, as well as any damages from the lawsuit, to organisations pursuing cybersurveillance research and advocacy.” By endorsing the protocol and methods adopted by Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech, Apple has made it almost impossible for any of the technical members of the Supreme Court Committee to seriously question them.
In fact, Apple may have done its own due diligence in the matter and is likely to submit its own findings in a California court, where WhatsApp is already fighting a case against NSO for a massive breach of its system in 2019. Incidentally, WhatsApp recently won an important battle after a US appeals court declared that the immunity from civil litigation in American courts enjoyed by foreign governments would not extend to the private Israeli surveillance company.
The 2019 WhatsApp breach, and the lawsuit that it spawned, was of course not seriously investigated by the Indian government.
Against the backdrop of investigations by multiple jurisdictions into the use of Pegasus, Apple going to court makes it incumbent on India to respond responsibly. So far, the Indian government has been in denial that Pegasus was used against Indian citizens. The Modi government has even questioned the method used by Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech.
Therefore, Apple’s stamp of approval is very significant.
Unlike WhatsApp, or its owner Facebook, Apple is not controversial and has been held in high esteem by the Modi government. In fact, Apple’s investment in India for making iPhones over the last five years has been touted by the government as India’s big Atmanirbharta initiative, reducing dependence on Chinese mobile electronics. Indeed, former IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has hailed Apple for moving a substantial part of its iPhone manufacturing ecosystem to India, and away from China.
Given this backdrop, it will be very difficult for the Indian government to deny Apple’s own findings in regard to the massive breach of its operating system by Pegasus spyware.
Indeed, it is now incumbent on the SC committee and the Lokur Commission investigating Pegasus surveillance in India to invite top Apple officials to depose. If Apple officials state that Pegasus was used in India, it would prove to be hugely embarrassing for the Modi government.
A few months ago, I had asked an Apple official in India how the company could tolerate the massive blow dealt by Pegasus to its privacy branding. Apple has chosen to respond, even if somewhat belatedly. By going to court, Apple is also protecting its global brand image, built in great measure on the privacy it offers to millions of iPhone customers. Apple has shown that protecting customers is paramount, even if it embarrasses some governments with whom they interact in the normal course of business. This alone is a positive development.
The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves more than 80 journalists from 17 news organisations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Read all our coverage here.