The news that governments have been using the Israel-developed surveillance tool Pegasus to spy on their citizens and on each other has caused quite a buzz this past week. In East Africa, it added misery to already strained relations, with Rwanda fighting off spying allegations on peers from Kampala and Pretoria. Kigali has denied the claims.
Most commentators have focused on what this means for regional and African integration, if governments are apparently hostile to each other.
In the wider scheme of things, it would be foolhardy for any of the ‘‘victim’’ governments to allow this to define relations. Long before the advent of the modern nation-state, espionage was normal business between states. The evidence of this is traceable to Greek mythology through to the biblical Old Testament. In more recent times, through the World Wars and the Cold War, it was expected among the major powers that they would spy on each other.
Governments exist to defend national and territorial integrity from internal and external threats. To fulfill these roles effectively, they need information that can be gathered openly or covertly. Spying helps to inform and execute policy. The difference is in whether the mission for espionage is hostile or benign. And it is the duty of any nation-state to look out for spies, figure out their intentions and craft an appropriate response strategy.
Governments accept this reality and, in the global North, have set up safeguards that protect citizens from unwarranted interference in their lives by an omnipresent state. The world has changed a lot since the end of the Cold War, with technology largely replacing human intelligence in the chain. Pegasus is one such effective, if deadly, tool.
For poor resource-constrained countries, spyware such as Pegasus are force multipliers. They give governments a footprint far larger than could have been possible using "conventional" methods.
Of more concern to citizens should be how states use these tools, especially in this era when terrorism has given repressive regimes the licence to crack down on dissent, including framing opponents with convenient charges. Pegasus is an essential element in the modern arsenal of the state to counter emerging threats. But it is also open to abuse, where the culture of respect for people's rights is weak or nonexistent.
NSO Group, the Israeli makers of Pegasus, argue that the technology is a useful tool that is simply being abused by its customers. True as that might be, as the originator and vendor of the system, NSO Group cannot escape the moral responsibility for not choosing its customers carefully. Customer discrimination would not be new. There are plenty of sophisticated territorial defence and offensive military systems that Western countries cannot just sell to anybody, because of the potential for their misuse.
The abuse of Pegasus is becoming a source of new tensions or escalating old ones. Access to such technology could be used as tool to force repressive regimes to liberalise and democratise in pretty much the same way access to development aid has been used since the 1980s.