Thursday, October 28 2021

Dive In


Jeeeet gayeeee… we wonnn

That’s the WhatsApp status shared by Nafisa Atari after Pakistan won the T20 match against India. The schoolteacher from Udaipur has been sacked from her job and arrested—though she managed to get bail. Meanwhile, three Kashmiri engineering students have been suspended and arrested in Agra for the same crime. The case was filed after Hindutva groups held protests outside the institution.

Stuff to check out: The latest episode of the splainer podcast ‘Press Decode’ offers an analysis of the many failures of the law—be it on a Hollywood set or with a Bollywood star’s son. Be sure to head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to listen to it.

Big Story

A significant Supreme Court ruling on privacy

The TLDR: The Supreme Court appointed a special committee to investigate allegations of snooping—involving the spyware Pegasus. And in doing so, it strongly upheld a citizen’s right to privacy—and knocked down the government’s arguments about national security. Here’s a quick overview of the ruling, and what it hopes to achieve.


First, a Pegasus refresher

The investigation: Back in July, Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed a global database of more than 50,000 phone numbers—which may have been targeted by a powerful spyware tool called Pegasus. It shared these numbers with media organisations—which helped identify the names attached to these numbers. Amnesty’s Security Lab conducted forensic analysis on 67 smartphones, of which 23 were successfully infected and 14 showed signs of attempted hacking.


The India findings: The 1000 Indian numbers included phones of 40 journalists, three opposition leaders, serving government ministers and businesspersons. The biggest name on the list: Rahul Gandhi. Forensic analyses were performed on 22 smartphones whose numbers appeared on the list. Of these, there is clear evidence that at least ten were targeted with Pegasus—of which seven were infected. These included the phone of Prashant Kishor, who is Mamata Banerjee’s campaign advisor.


Point to note: We have done three detailed explainers on Pegasus. Read about the global investigation, the India angle and the Israeli company NSO which sells Pegasus to foreign governments. 


The case 

The revelations triggered a number of petitions seeking an independent probe into the evidence of snooping. The Supreme Court took them up only after citizens whose phones had been hacked approached the court. The judges then demanded a reply from the government—which filed a vague, two-page affidavit, which:


  • “Unequivocally” denied “any and all of the allegations”—and claimed they were based on “conjectures and surmises or on other unsubstantiated media reports.”
  • Announced the government’s intent to constitute a Committee of Experts to “go into all aspects of the issue”—not to investigate those responsible for spying but “with a view to dispel any wrong narrative spread by certain vested interests.”


Also this: The affidavit also attached the government’s response in Parliament which claimed “the time tested processes in our country are well-established to ensure that unauthorised surveillance does not occur.” Why this matters: The government has not once issued a clear, unequivocal statement that it did not use Pegasus to spy on citizens.


Point to note: The Court was not satisfied with the affidavit, and asked the government to issue a more detailed clarification—which it flatly refused to do on the ground of national security.


The ruling

The bench was led by Chief Justice NV Ramana who led with a quote from George Orwell’s famous novel ‘1984’: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” And it set the tone for the ruling that followed. The Court raised three key concerns:


One: The right to privacy: “Every citizen of India ought to be protected against violations of privacy. It is this expectation which enables us to exercise our choices, liberties and freedom.” Also this:


“In a democratic country governed by the rule of law, indiscriminate spying on individuals cannot be allowed except with sufficient statutory safeguards, by following the procedure established by law under the Constitution.”


Two: The freedom of the press. Having noted that the right to privacy is not limited to journalists or activists alone, the Court also emphasised its critical connection to the media


“Such chilling effect (alleged surveillance) on the freedom of speech is an assault on the vital public­ watchdog role of the press, which may undermine the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information.”


Three: The indiscriminate use of national security to justify government actions. The ruling declared, “The mere invocation of national security by the state does not render the court a mute spectator”—and added


“[The government does not] get a free pass every time the spectre of national security is raised… National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning.”


Point to note: The judges also took direct aim at the affidavit filed by the government, noting: “There has been no specific denial of any of the facts averred by the petitioners by the… Union of India. There has only been an omnibus and vague denial in the ‘limited affidavit’... which cannot be sufficient.”


The committee

Headlines that matter

Mark Zuckerberg has a new problem

The Zuckerbergs are being sued by two former household employees who claim that they were subjected to racist and homophobic abuse—by the family’s head of security. And they were penalised when they raised a complaint. The allegations include calling a black, gay woman “ghetto”—and slapping a male gay employee on his groin. Business Insider has more details.


Speaking of lawsuits: Kellog’s is being sued for $5 million by a customer who claims its Pop-Tarts don’t have enough strawberries. Also a problem: “relatively significant amount of non-strawberry fruit ingredients” including pears and apples. (CNN)


Netflix’s sneaky little trick

The company received a lot of flak in 2020 over the poster for the French film ‘Cuties’. People were angry that it showed children in sexualised poses. The movie itself is about the pressure girls feel to sexualise themselves at a very young age. At the time, Netflix stood by the film and the director. But it secretly suppressed ‘Cuties’ on its platform:


“Behind the scenes, however, Netflix scrambled to minimize public backlash by suppressing the film in search results prior to its release. It removed Cuties from the ‘coming soon’ and ‘popular searches’ categories and excluded it from queries for ‘cute.’ It then adjusted its algorithm so searches for the film would not surface ‘steamy / sexual titles’ or kids’ movies.”


Why this matters: When it comes to big tech PR, what you see is not what you get. (The Verge)


A new nightclub hazard

Women in the UK face a new danger called ‘needle spiking’—where they are secretly pricked in crowded spaces like pubs and clubs. The effects are similar to consuming a drink laced with Rohypnol (roofie) or Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (GHB). That said, the number of cases are low, and no sexual assault has been reported. (Independent)



In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • Charis Tsevis’ intricate digital mosaics of celebrities and presidents


Reading Habit

  • Food writer and editor, Sonal Ved takes our Book Addict’s Quiz

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