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Supreme Court Staffer Who Accused Former CJI Gogoi Of Sexual Harassment Was A Potential Pegasus Surveillance Target

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Think about the worst Bollywood spy film, or an Indian TV soap, where it becomes easy to manipulate people because their most secret conversations and acts have been spied on and recorded. You’d think this was only possible in fiction, and yet, as of yesterday, there has been startling revelations of a possibility that Big Brother might indeed be watching. I am talking, of course, of The Pegasus Project, an international investigative report that claims governments around the world, including India, allegedly used a spyware sold by an Israeli company called the NSO Group, to spy on the phones of journalists, ministers, activists and other persons of interest. And if recent reports by The Wire are to be believed, the Supreme Court female staffer who had accused ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019 was on the list of potential Pegasus surveillance targets.

Not just her though, reportedly a total of 11 phone numbers associated with the staffer, her husband and other family members were found on this list of potential targets in the investigation.

What is the Pegasus Project?

Right now, the Pegasus project is THE news flying and galloping on every media portal. But what is it? Well, the project is an international collaborative report based off the leaked data accessed by a Paris-based media nonprofit, Forbidden Stories, and Amnesty International. This leaked data, which comprises a database of phone numbers that were targeted by clients of NSO (it only sells the spyware to vetted governments), was then shared with 17 media partners, including the likes of Washington Post Die Zeit, Le Monde, The Guardian, Suddeutsche Zeitung, The Wire from India and 10 other Arab, European and Mexican news organisations. These media publications are currently reporting on how these governments from across the globe, including India, are allegedly using surveillance for purposes other than national security.

The NSO group has not attested to which governments it has sold the Pegasus software to.  As for the response of the Government of India to these allegations, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has posted its response, which seeks to deny the allegations made by the report.

Why is a sexual harassment complainant on the list of potential surveillance targets?

According to another report by The Wire, mere days after she accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in April 2019, three phone numbers belonging to the female Supreme Court staffer who was the complainant in the case, were put down as potential Pegasus surveillance targets by an unidentified Indian agency that is a client of the NSO Group.

A little history of the case. The staffer claims that the now ex-CJI Gogoi had made unwanted sexual advances toward her, which she had rebuffed. A few weeks after that in December 2018, she was relieved of her staff position in the Supreme Court. The complainant then put in all her allegations in a sworn affidavit that was presented before a special bench of Supreme Court judges in April 2019. However, in one of the most ridiculous miscarriages of justice, the convener of these proceedings was none other than the accused, CJI Ranjan Gogoi himself, along with two other judges.

Eventually, Justice Gogoi asked the now CJI, Justice Bobde, to convene an in-house panel with other SC justices, which ultimately dismissed the allegations. It was also reported that after this dismissal, the staffer was reinstated in her job by the Supreme Court. Furthermore, her family members, including her husband and brother-in-law, who had been mysteriously suspended from their jobs in Delhi Police, were also rehired.

According to The Wire, an analysis of the leaked list of phone numbers accessed during the Pegasus Project investigations, the complainant was put on the list as a ‘person of interest’. There were three numbers belonging to her, and eight other numbers belonging to her husband, his two brothers and some other people associated with her, that were marked as potential targets for surveillance in the same week that she first spoke about the allegations publicly.

Also Read: MP Mahua Moitra’s Explosive Speech In Parliament Calls Out The Handling Of A Sexual Harassment Case

What does this mean for the safety of sexual harassment complainants and justice for them?

Let’s leave aside the credibility of the report for a second here, because that’s a whole other discussion that is only just beginning, with more startling revelations coming in. Lets instead look at the fact that this kind of a surveillance has indeed been proven to be a possibility. What does that mean for sexual assault survivors who want to accuse men in positions of power? Already, we women live in a world that does not easily believe us, where movements like #MeToo cause superficial change but don’t really change the system, and where we’re already afraid of speaking up against our oppressors.

Think of all the ways in which a woman’s privacy can be been breached if her phone is being used to spy on her. Our phones are literally on us all the time, with our whole lives on it, from where we are, who we talk to, what we read, watch, listen to. Everything. How easy does it become then, with such a technology and power, to breach something as confidential as attorney-client privilege and gain access to all the exchanges the woman might’ve had with her lawyers. This data could easily be used to anticipate their every move and then build a defence strategy against it. And why just defence, the personal nature of this data found on someone’s phone could be used in so many ways to blackmail them into dropping the case.

In its report on the matter, The Wire explores another threat that such surveillance can pose, which seems to me, far more dangerous. It’s not just the sexual assault survivor who can be blackmailed, is it? If the information sourced from the complainant is indeed incriminating, then the accused, who is a man in a position of power, is also susceptible to blackmail. The complainant in the sexual harassment case in question had withdrawn from the inquiry panel citing lack of sensitivity. The situation is already this worse for survivors of gender-based crime. And this possibility that their safety is so fickle and privacy easily erosive makes it even harder for women to speak up!

I call upon you once again, then, to imagine the plot of a Bollywood movie you’ve seen countless times, where a woman seeking justice is thwarted and blackmailed into staying silent because men more powerful than her have the power to destroy her life and that of her loved ones too. And then let the realisation dawn on you that this is actually happening in real life. How are women supposed to be empowered to break free of oppression when those in power are evolving their modes of oppression? How is a sister supposed to fight injustice when Big Brother is always watching and using all the footage to crush her voice?

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