Alfredo Lopez, Melanie Bush, Hamid Khan and Ken Montenegro
Years ago, there was a movie genre known as “hacker fiction,” a kind of science fiction with plots that revolved around computers, nerdy people who spend their lives using them and the outrageously intrusive and controlling things they could do. The last great film of this genre was probably Robert Redford’s “Sneakers,” a film about government and corporate spying that beautifully captured the light-filtered, screen-framed “alternative universe” world of the hacker/technologist. It perfectly sculpted a scary world of intrusiveness where most of us have lost control of our lives without even knowing it. Among the many wonderful things about that masterpiece of moviemaking, one stands out: Every usurpation of power that it assigned to the powerful, presented as a warning about the nightmare that could develop, however, these rarely provoke more than a shrug today. “Sneakers” now feels less like a cautionary, science-fiction prophesy than a dramatized documentary. The government has all the abusive powers the movie displays and we, the people of the world, have no privacy.
“We’ve been recommending each other this tool or that tool, how to keep [our phones] more and more secure from the eyes of the government,” Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova told reporters from the Forbidden Stories project “And yesterday I realized that there is no way. Unless you lock yourself in [an] iron tent, there is no way that they will not interfere into your communications.” (https://forbiddenstories.org/about-the-pegasus-project/)
Many activists believe that the situation does not have to be this way: a democratically developed technology, aimed at improving everyone’s life, would pose few threats to any of us. In fact, information technology has been a spectacular progressive tool for movements and individual activists and a major source of empowerment for many people. This is the first time in human history that most people, no matter their station or position, can share their thinking, relationships, and activities with the world. That is a key to empowerment and so engrossing that most of us no longer even notice what it means to be able to exchange personal information, communicate immediately, and conduct all sorts of vital business with folks across the planet. We are accustomed to this stunning development. The degree of complacency that has emerged from this extraordinary capacity, however, is a collective and profound weakness.
Political and Collective Vulnerability
Today, an estimated 4.3 billion people are using the Internet, most through cell phones: the tiny, fully capable computers that literally bind us to the Internet without interruption. In any instant, one can interact with any cellphone user on Earth and share photos, videos, email, and website links with them.
The world’s governments and the powerful people behind them have noticed all this. And, as they do with any invention that shifts power, they have sought to control the technology and either sell it or use it to preserve their empowered position. This has been happening with increasing fervor during the last decade during which the Internet has become foundational in many aspects of our lives. The capitalist idea of marketing is based on need — whether real or culturally conjured. Techno-colonization is rapidly creating a world of haves and have-nots in its own culture and practice of profound dependency. Even those who don’t use technology and the internet are impacted by it in many aspects and in the control over their lives. Who can seriously say that our societies, streets packed with people physically attached to their cell phones, are not dependent on those nifty little hand-held computers?
Techno Fascism Is Part of Settler Colonialism
Enter the aptly named vehicle of intrusion: Pegasus developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli “cyber-arms firm” (yes, there really is a “cyber-arms” industry!). Pegasus software is the ultimate spy/stalker package. Essentially, Pegasus is a suite of what are called “exploits,” software programs that seek out flaws in the programs on your computer and use them to infect it and get it to do whatever the exploiters want (usually to give up information to them). It works on various cell phone software systems including some Android and iOS (Apple) products.
What’s most galling about Pegasus and similar tools is that it usually starts with our collaboration. This program sends an email or text message and asks that you click some link with what seems like important or enticing content at the other end. You click it; Pegasus activates and invades. Your phone now belongs to the intruders. There are some reports that Pegasus has been installed on some devices using a “zero-click” exploit, which doesn’t require that the phone owner do anything. This highly pernicious attack is a specialty at NSO and, while almost all the documented infections were activated through a “click”, there may be many more “zero-click” attacks that have escaped notice. Zero-clicks leave no trace and are almost impossible to detect.
The True Threats
While the research is continuing, anti-intrusion activists have uncovered major Pegasus operations by the governments of most European countries (including England and France), the U.S., Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Overall, investigators have identified over 50,000 Pegasus-infected phones. The governments usually don’t comment — this is spy activity, after all — and many “civil society” NGOs will only say that it provides needed software support for governments fighting terrorism, human trafficking, and other crimes. However, Pegasus has been found on the phones of thousands of activists, politicians, journalists, researchers and educators. The company denied that its software was being used for this purpose. French intelligence was among the first governmental agencies to confirm that three of its journalists had been Pegasus attacked.
For the most part, the victims are opponents or observers of very repressive governments in developing countries, which makes this mega-surveillance even more predictable. But some say that the true threat isn’t only who is targeted but who is targeting and who is enabling them. (https://cdn.occrp.org/projects/project-p/?_gl=1*k2hnon*_ga*NDE1NjgzNjEyLjE2MzA1MjI1NDY.*_ga_NHCZV5EYYY*MTYzMDYwNzUwMi4yLjAuMTYzMDYwNzUwMi42MA..#/)
NSO is one of many spy-tool companies based in Israel that insists that its products are sold to governments to be used only “to combat terrorism and criminal behavior.” NSO insists that any government that steps outside those boundaries loses its access to the software (to date, there is no evidence that abusive governments have lost access.) The company’s President, Shalev Hulio, dramatically repeated that assurance in an interview with the U.S. television show Sixty Minutes and the company has issued a mountain of press statements and releases repeating the assurance.
Then came the revelations. The Forbidden Stories group, with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab, uncovered an ocean of information about Pegasus that made clear its nefarious use and is documented on this website https://www.occrp.org/en/the-pegasus-project/.) This is ample proof of the record of spying on activists, government officials and journalists, some of whose lives were put in danger. The list of over 50,000 phone numbers includes murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s close friends, colleagues, and family. It’s clear that Pegasus is a weapon that embattled governments use to keep tabs on and then repress their opponents.
Current and Future Consequences
It’s a nightmare for popular and liberation movements. Although activists have deployed social media in their liberation movements as in Egypt and other places, it has come back to haunt them once the tech driven stalker state has gathered, stored, and shared information on the activists and launched massive witch hunts.
Like drone strikes, Pegasus says their spy-ware is carefully targeted because cell phones are the tools of a population that far exceeds the people who use traditional computers to access the Internet: young people, poorer people, people from less technologically-developed countries. While it could once be said that the Internet is accessed by a population inordinately found in “more developed countries,” cell phone usage has now made it accessible to the overwhelming majority of the world’s adults. To deepen the vulnerability, anti-corporate technologists (the one who develop privacy software) have been ridiculously under-resourced in developing security software for phones so cellphones are the most insecure Internet devices.
Is It About Privacy?
The people most affected by this growth in surveillance, movements for social change, face a vexing contradiction: in a climate ravaged, capitalism collapsed world where society itself seems to be falling apart, how important is “privacy” and is privacy even the right framework for this fight? For the contemporary social justice movement in the United States, for instance, it’s a question under almost constant discussion with very little consensus. Some center the privacy discussion under a people power framework with a historical understanding that for people targeted by the state (indigenous, Black, migrant, poor folks), privacy has always been a myth; others center the legalistic framework provided by the US Constitution as the starting point.
How do you have a successful movement against a government and its policies while the government is examining, logging and analyzing every single thing you do and say?
As activists in the U.S. frequently point out, social movements have always been surveilled. From the surveillance of enslaved peoples to those of us who were active in the 1970s, many clearly remember the obvious agents in meetings, the visits to our homes, grand jury subpoenas, the arrests (and almost immediate release) for no reason — all the accoutrements of a repressive state able to disrupt our movement and moderately restrained by the laws and rights we had to constantly fight to maintain and protect. This perhaps was its most damaging impact: draining the resources of our movements and filling our activists with a sense of impending fear that had an impact on what we did and how we thought.
Impacts of Surveillance
Digital surveillance is potentially worse because you can’t really see it and so activists can be lulled into complacency. Most activists have no idea they are being surveilled and, most of the time, pay no attention to the possibility. So, we are effectively working against a government that is allowing us to resist. It has the information it needs to close us down. Governments usually don’t do that because such repressive action might set off a hurricane of political response and, perhaps, because as long as they know what we are doing, we are at best a contained threat.
At the same time, our movements face the overwhelming task of leading struggles in what could be the most virulent perfect storm of crises in human history; from violent collapse of climate balance to failed governments worldwide to capitalism at near-death crisis. The challenges of developing programmatic responses to the situation in the world is way past daunting. Who has time to talk about privacy? What’s more, the profile of this software’s use appears to center on places that are not on the radar of most US left movements. Historic US myopia towards anything beyond US borders has long been a left-strategy, political, and solidarity challenge. Many believe it is overshadowed by the huge strategic challenges facing the United States, with its very present threat of additional fascist initiatives.
The truth, however, is that Pegasus is a threat to every person who opposes capitalism and the social infirmities it creates. It also threatens those who are not fighting the state. The history of surveillance has taught us that an increase in surveillance in one place is only a test-case for its application throughout the world. If someone isn’t using Pegasus or some similar product on you right now, they soon will be. Pegasus is not just a solidarity issue or a matter of concern for others’ lives; it’s an imminent, vicious threat to everyone reading this. It’s an intentional and methodically planned act to cause great harm to everyone.
How We Fight Back
The only answer to Pegasus, and the galloping intrusion it represents, is a multi-pronged response. There is no universal law on privacy, nor any real attempt to urge the world’s government to develop a law with some strength and specificity. The laws that exist, dis-unified and sometimes contradictory, are as toothless as a sloth. Pushing that, through organizations like the Association for Progressive Communications, is one prong of a potential effective approach. But to be effective, it must be blanket: no more spying software. Abolition. Period.
Of necessity, that requires companion activism. Among the most glaring omissions in our arsenal as a movement is the absence of a simple statement: we oppose government and corporate surveillance of all kinds, we will never support it, and we will not work with anyone who does. As obvious as that might seem to many, every version of that statement has provoked debate that has, at times, reached acrimonious levels. “Abolitionist” formations like the Los Angeles Stop LAPD Spying Coalition have often been met with blistering attacks and insistence that their perspective is “far too extreme” and divisive.
How moderate can you be when they spy on everything you do, everywhere you go and everyone with whom you interact? If we are committed to ending state violence, there is no alternative to abolition and all movements should insist that their organizations sign-on to abolitionist, rather than reformist, statements.
Perhaps most important, all organizing, education and lobbying must be internationally coordinated. A framework that demystifies and decolonizes the language that surrounds such tools to help communities understand its capacity and scale of harm. That would represent an act of growth, learning, and love; but the Pegasus adventure (taking advantage of disparate national laws and uncoordinated national movements) should teach us how important international coordination and solidarity are.
When someone makes proposals like the ones just written, the response is often “that’s not possible within the current capitalist system.” While this might seem true, and, in fact, may be the point. Revolution doesn’t happen because it’s a good alternative nor because it’s possible; it happens because it’s the only alternative.
Alfredo Lopez: With more than a half century in the revolutionary movement in the United States, Alfredo Lopez has been active in many different social movements including the technology organizing movement of which May First Movement Technology is part. He is a founder of that organization and currently serves on its Board. He has authored seven published books and hundreds of articles.
Melanie E. L. Bush: May First Movement Technology Board co-chair; Peoples Strike national organizing committee; Professor, Adelphi University; Research Fellow, University of South Africa; author of Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie or Reality (with Roderick D. Bush), Everyday Forms of Whiteness: Understanding Race in a “Post-Racial” World, and lead editor of Rod Bush: Lessons from a Radical Black Scholar on Liberation Love and Justice.
Hamid Khan: An organizer and coordinator with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. The mission of the coalition is to build community-based power to dismantle police surveillance, spying, and infiltration programs. The coalition utilizes multiple campaigns to advance an innovative organizing model that is Los Angeles-based but has implications regionally, nationally, and internationally. Currently serves on the May First Movement Technology Board.
Ken Montenegro: A technologist, lawyer, and movement factotum. He is past Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild and Technology Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ken is also a past board member of NTEN, the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, and a current Board Member of May First Movement Technology.
May First Movement Technology: https://mayfirst.coop/en/
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