Pegasus spyware scandal

Pegasus: Dystopias by design

Print edition : August 27, 2021

Businesses and governments have colonised our interactions through technology such as Aadhaar, Pegasus and mobile apps. Photo: Chris DELMAS/AFP

Outside an Aadhaar centre in Vijayawada on June 28. In India, the use of Aadhaar has created a role for businesses and governments in every interaction in our lives. Photo: RAJU V.

Spying on people using Pegasus or any other means is a glaring example of the failure of leadership.

If you have grown up with stories of monsters, ghosts, demons, witches, misdeeds, terror and crime, you are not alone. Most of our world has grown up with similar stories that told us evil is out there. Through our stories, we learnt to identify valour, courage and honour with the defeat of monsters. In fact, we even grow up needing an enemy out there. Our world view has come to make everything that is not us a potential threat. We build a world where we dare not trust anyone.

The biologist Konrad Lorenz would probably have called this imprinting. In 1935, he demonstrated that when ducklings hatch, they are imprinted to follow anyone who imitates the mother duck’s sounds. In much the same way, we are so imprinted with the idea of monsters, ghosts, demons, witches, misdeeds, terror and crime that we learn to seek out monsters, ghosts, demons, witches, misdeeds, terror and crime in real life.

Out of 10 people you talk to, how many would look at you with disbelief if you talked and acted as if the world was full of people who were peaceful, caring, generous, respectful and loving? But experience has taught us otherwise, you would argue. In that one sentence, you condemn your experience or even empirical data to be the reason for the future to be in the prison of the past.

The psychologist B.F. Skinner would call us as superstitious as his pigeons. Skinner had fed his pigeons using a machine that dispensed food at regular intervals no matter what the birds were doing. Soon the pigeons associated food with whatever chance actions they were doing when it was delivered. The pigeons continued to perform the actions, hoping for more food. Much like Skinner’s pigeons, we are conditioned to associate whatever someone wants us to do with feeling safe. We come to believe that since the consequences of our action were good, we must repeat it to feel safe. Sometimes, we are conditioned to associate whatever someone wants us not to do with feeling unsafe. We come to believe that since the consequences of our action were bad, we must not repeat it to feel safe.

Also read: Surveillance state: The Pegasus saga unravels in India

It is no surprise then that the most likely reaction people express when an organisation declares that its mission is to “help governments protect innocents from terror and crime by providing them with the best intelligence technology of its kind” is to believe that this is a way to safety. Or even feel awe and admiration. Perhaps even gratitude. Not only does this satisfy the requirement of making someone out there an enemy, it prescribes what governments must do to keep you safe.

That, in case you did not know it, is the mission of NSO, the company that licenses the use of Pegasus. NSO even goes on to assert that Pegasus “is not a mass surveillance technology, and only collects data from the mobile devices of specific individuals, suspected to be involved in serious crime and terror”.

Our world view, informed by imprinting and conditioning, refuses to recognise that our world is made up of interactions. It is not the individuals who are interacting but the nature of these interactions that decides the resultant behaviour of the relationship. Systems scientists describe as systems the “wholes” that result from the interactions of individuals. When the interactions of the interacting actors are driven by independent purposes, the resultant behaviour is usually exploitative and even coercive. As a consequence, the interacting actors experience a loss of liberty, dignity, equality, justice or a combination of these. It is not unusual, then, that the interacting actors develop a lack of trust in each other and even experience a breakdown of dialogue and interactions that either of the actors may find essential for their well-being. It is not unsurprising that such exploitative interactions make their systems candidates for terror and crime.

Peaceful systems, on the other hand, result from interacting actors who are driven by common purposes. The resultant behaviour is supportive of the whole that the interacting actors form together. The interacting actors experience liberty, dignity, equality, justice or a combination of these. It is not unusual that the interacting actors experience trust in each other. Actors in such systems can even experience care for each other.

Also read: Will the Pegasus case be another ‘tryst with destiny’ for India?

To target “specific individuals, suspected to be involved in serious crime and terror” is unimaginative and demonstrates an inability to recognise crime and terror as the emergent behaviour from exploitative and coercive relationships. It is a justification of exploitative systems, not a mission of creating a just society with dignity, equality and liberty. It is an affirmation of terror and crime, not an elimination of it.

The securities and insecurities of our world are our designs. They are the consequences of the purposes for which we choose to interact. They are the result of our choice of values in our designs. If we value justice, liberty, equality and dignity, we will choose to interact with those whose purposes are the same as ours. Where we do not pursue independent purposes that are exploitative or coercive of the other.

When governments and businesses imagine that they are the ones who should control our purposes and the interactions that result from those purposes or insist on a covert or overt role in those interactions, they create dystopias. But, of course, like us, the people in governments have grown up with stories of monsters, ghosts, demons, witches, misdeeds, terror and crime. They are imprinted with the idea of needing an enemy. Their world view is conditioned to finding individuals who are evil. They know little or nothing about the common purposes that bring people together to live their lives and the interactions that these create.

The movements that seek freedom from oppressive governments, from colonising businesses or seek rights for expression, rights of choice and rights to dignity are the result of the failure of governments and businesses to allow self-determination of purposes and relationships and of their often being the ones to create exploitative and coercive relationships. In India, the use of Aadhaar to create a role for businesses and governments in every interaction in our lives, the use of mobile phones to insist on a role for the technology and telecom businesses in every relationship we enjoy, and the use of one-way broadcast channels that take no feedback and create coercive roles for government figureheads have resulted in dystopias by design.

Also read: The global impact of Pegasus

Covert eavesdropping on conversations using Pegasus or any other means is yet another glaring example of the failure of leadership. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the role of leadership to enable relationships based on common purposes and to build peace and harmony. It demonstrates an absence of public interest in allowing people to pursue their purposes in interactions that bring meaning and joy to their lives. It reflects a complete disrespect for peace and harmony.

If the conscience of our courts of justice remains unmoved when businesses and governments colonise our interactions through technology such as Aadhaar, Pegasus and mobile apps, they demonstrate that they too have fallen prey to imprinting and conditioning.

Until we are able to recognise the systems of our own designs and redesign them to reinforce the trust of participating actors in one another, we will not be able to experience the change we wish to see.

Anupam Saraph is a Future Designer, a Professor of Systems and Decision Sciences and a renowned expert in governance of complex systems. He can be reached on Twitter @anupamsaraph.

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