In Hungary and India, Spyware Revelations Show the Decline of Democracy

Pegasus is a new tool in the authoritarian playbook

On July 18, a consortium of international news organizations reported that military-grade spyware licensed by the Israeli firm NSO Group was used to hack 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, activists, and business executives. The consortium revealed a list of 50,000 potential surveillance targets, including phone numbers from around the world.

If hacked, the Pegasus spyware can read a target's emails and texts, view photos, break encrypted communication on WhatsApp and Signal, listen in on phone conversations, illicitly turn on cameras, and gain access to location data. NSO Group said it has "no insight" into the intelligence activities of its clients and has vowed to investigate cases of potential human rights abuses. 

Two declining democracies stood out on the list -- India and Hungary. In the 37 attempted or successful hacks that the consortium was able to corroborate, five were from Hungary and 10 were from India. Neither country currently has an advanced surveillance state as China does. However, according to the forensic analysis of the targets' mobile devices, these states are using surveillance technology to suppress dissent in the manner of autocratic countries. (Hungary and India both responded to the investigation, not specifically denying the allegations.)

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian government has become much more authoritarian. The Hindu nationalist government has presided over rising violence against Muslims and cracked down on journalism, NGOs, and civil society. Hungary was once a model of postcommunist transition. However, under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the government has manipulated electoral rules, crushed the independent judiciary, targeted migrants and LGBT people, and cracked down on independent journalism and NGOs. 

In Hungary, forensic analysis suggested that the smartphone of investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi was hacked multiple times. Many of the hacking attempts seemed to come right after he requested comment from the government on investigative stories. Orban's spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, has accused Panyi of having “Orbánophobia and Hungarophobia” and being "deep into political activism." Analysis of the phone of a colleague of Panyi's, Andras Szabo, also indicated a hack. These revelations were embarrassing to the European Union, which has touted its strong data privacy protections.

In India, Amnesty International reported, "the phones of Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, co-founders of independent online outlet The Wire, were infected with Pegasus spyware as recently as June 2021." Indian authorities have launchednumerous criminal investigations into journalists from The Wire.

Venu expressed outrage at the revelations. "When governments pretend they know nothing about illegal hacking on such a massive scale, they hack democracy," he wrote. "To be silent is to be complicit, to consent to this violation of democracy itself. It is a crime against the nation, committed by the state." Indeed, the investigation revealed another tool to silence dissent and the free press for states that are moving towards authoritarianism.

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