End the impunity: police surveillance and hacking in India must be eradicated

Digital safety, human rights, and democracy itself, are in peril in India — the Indian parliament and the judiciary must immediately initiate independent and transparent investigations into the use of illegal hacking and surveillance. 

In 2021, it was reported that malware was used to plant “evidence” in an attempt to manipulate ongoing court cases against activists and human rights defenders. This week, a new Wired exposé revealed the latest findings from security firm SentinelOne linking the police in India to the “long-running hacking campaign, which the company has called Modified Elephant.” 

“These outrageous — and blatantly illegal — hacking and surveillance revelations by law enforcement to target activists and human rights defenders in India are an attack on the foundations of democracy,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director and Senior International Counsel at Access Now. “This impunity that has empowered authorities to take such bold actions to threaten fundamental rights must be met with immediate investigation, accountability, and surveillance reform.” 

These ongoing revelations tell a chilling story — not only might authorities hack people’s devices to install spyware, such as Pegasus, to access what is on them, but they may also hack them to plant what was never on them. And all of this could well be done by authorities entrusted with the responsibility of keeping us safe. 

“Police shouldn’t need policing,” said Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now. “A democracy where people need protection from those we ought to trust to protect us, is a democracy in need of reform. SentinelOne’s latest findings in India reinforce what the Pegasus Project illuminated: digital safety is crucial for democracy, and our surveillance regime needs immediate changes to fix the lack of accountability, transparency and any meaningful protection of the fundamental right to privacy.”

Access Now urges the Indian parliament and the judiciary to immediately investigate the use of illegal hacking and surveillance measures in India, and take steps to ensure accountability of government and law enforcement agencies. Indian police units must immediately suspend the usage of spyware and any other device hacking services. There is an urgent need for an overhaul of the surveillance regime in India in order to safeguard people’s fundamental rights, and Indian democracy.