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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The politics of audio-visual leaks

After an alleged conversation between former president Asif Ali Zardari and property tycoon Malik Riaz was leaked on social media, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who rose to power following a contentious no-confidence motion against former Prime Minister Imran Khan's government, sent a tweet criticising Imran Khan.

PM Shehbaz Sharif catapulted to power in the wake of a controversial no-confidence – motion against the former PM Imran Khan’s government, made a Tweet criticizing Imran Khan after an alleged conversation in audio leaks between former president Asif Ali Zardari and property tycoon Malik Riaz was leaked on social media.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a 1989 American independent drama film written and directed by Steven Soderbergh. The plot told the story of a troubled man who videotaped women discussing their sexuality and fantasies, and his impact on the relationships of a troubled married couple and the wife’s younger sister.

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Understanding the matter better

Sleaze, slander, and blackmail, reminiscent of Soderbergh’s movie, have gripped politics during the last few years. This is not Pakistan specific. The allegations that spy software known as Pegasus may have been used, as early as 2016, to carry out surveillance and disinformation on journalists, activists, and political leaders, highlights that surveillance and badmouthing is now for sale.

Pegasus is spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO Group that can be covertly installed on mobile phones (and other devices) running most versions of iOS and Android phones. As of 2022, Pegasus was capable of reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords, location tracking, accessing the target device’s microphone and camera, and harvesting information from apps. The spyware is named after Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology. It is a Trojan horse computer virus that can be sent “flying through the air” to infect cell phones.

Pegasus was discovered in August 2016 after a failed installation attempt on the iPhone of a human rights activist led to an investigation revealing details about the spyware, its abilities, and the security vulnerabilities it exploited. The spyware has been used for surveillance of anti-regime activists, journalists, and political leaders from several nations around the world

In July 2021, the investigation initiative Pegasus Project, along with an in-depth analysis by Amnesty International, reported that Pegasus was still being widely used against high-profile targets.

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According to an analysis by the German newspaper Die Zeit, the following incumbent and former heads of state and government have been targeted, implying possible full access to their mobile phones’ data:

  • Noureddine Bedoui, former Prime Minister of Algeria.
  • Mostafa Madbouly, Prime Minister of Egypt.
  • Charles Michel, former Prime Minister of Belgium and current President of the European Council.
  • .EmmanuelMacron, President of France.
  • Édouard Philippe, former Prime Minister of France.
  • Édith Chabre, wife of Édouard Philippe.
  • Most French ministers.
  • Numerous French diplomats.
  • Barham Salih, President of Iraq.
  • Bakhytzhan Sagintayev, former Prime Minister of Kazakhstan.
  • Saad Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon.
  • Mohammed VI, King of Morocco.
  • Saadeddine Othmani, Prime Minister of Morocco.
  • Imran Khan, former Prime Minister of Pakistan (even when he was in opposition).
  • Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa.
  • Ruhaana Rugunda, former Prime Minister of Uganda.
  • Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, former Prime Minister of Yemen.

Indian PM Modi’s government has used Pegasus to spy on the opposition leaders, union ministers, journalists, administrators such as India’s election commissioner, and minority leaders. Reportedly, Former PM Nawaz Sharif used Pegasus to spy on his political opponents, including Imran Khan, as well as civil and military bureaucrats. Pegasus is classified as a weapon that, on the face of it, is exported to the other governments only after clearance from the Israeli government.

The spyware was cleared for export to the government of India after the meeting between PM Modi and the former Israeli PM Netanyahu when the two of them met in Israel during Modi’s official visit to Israel in July 2017. If the Pegasus software was used to snoop on Imran Khan, it was most probably provided by the Modi government to Nawaz Sharif.

In the past, Israel had been stealing cutting-edge military technologies and materials, not only from France, Switzerland, and Belgium but also from the United States. During these Israeli theft operations, all these countries looked the other way while the Israelis got away with the targeted material, equipment, and blueprints.

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Peter Ostrovsky, a rogue Mossad agent, in his book “The Other Side of Deception,” mentions how the United States allows Israel to steal military technology from American companies. Like many other shady Israeli companies, NSO Group, the Israeli front company that markets the Pegasus spyware, had teamed up with Francisco Partners, an American private equity firm that focused exclusively on investments in technology and technology-enabled services and processes.

 Having said that, what is new in the revelations about the Pegasus scam?

Governments the world over, without any differentiation between the First, the Second,  the Third, and the Fourth World countries have been indulging in spying on their political rivals and the bureaucrats whose loyalties were considered circumspect by their bosses. This was done and is still being done with impunity by the rulers of as wide a range of countries as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, to name a few. Then why do newspapers like America’s Washington Post and the Israeli Haaretz have to disclose these reprehensible spying operations years after they were conducted?

Those who have read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” would know the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer, hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free, and happy. Ultimately, the rebellion is betrayed, and the farm ends up in a state as bad as it was before, under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon.

The novel symbolizes the events leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. George Orwell, the author who coined the phrase “Big Brother is watching you”, used it as an allegory to intense surveillance by the secret services. In the novel, Big Brother is the supreme ruler of Oceania, the leader of the Party, an accomplished war hero, a master inventor and philosopher, and the original instigator of the revolution that brought the Party to power. The Party uses the image of Big Brother to instill a sense of loyalty and fear in the populace.

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So, the United States, the quintessential Big Brother, and Israel, the American poodle, are signaling to the governments around the world how vulnerable and helpless they are against these global bullies. Such disclosures also help the US to put its “Strategic Allies” like India, and the non-compliant rulers like Imran Khan in their place.



Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.