The Pegasus Hack: A Hark Back to the Wassenaar Arrangement

By Sharngan Aravindakshan

The world’s most popular messaging application, Whatsapp, recently revealed that a significant number of Indians were among the targets of Pegasus, a sophisticated spyware that operates by exploiting a vulnerability in Whatsapp’s video-calling feature. It has also come to light that Whatsapp, working with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, an academic research organization with a focus on digital threats to civil society, has traced the source of the spyware to NSO Group, an Israeli company well known both for developing and selling hacking and surveillance technology to governments with a questionable record in human rights. Whatsapp’s lawsuit against NSO Group in a federal court in California also specifically alludes to NSO Group’s clients “which include but are not limited to government agencies in the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico as well as private entities.” The complaint filed by Whatsapp against NSO Group can be accessed here.

In this context, we examine the shortcomings of international efforts in limiting or regulating the transfers or sale of advanced and sophisticated technology to governments that often use it to violate human rights, as well as highlight the often complex and blurred lines between the military and civil use of these technologies by the government.

The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies (WA) exists for this precise reason. Established in 1996 and voluntary / non-binding in nature[I], its stated mission is “to contribute to regional and international security and stability, by promoting transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies, thus preventing destabilizing accumulations.”[ii] Military advancements across the globe, significant among which were the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, rocket tests by India and South Korea and the use of chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq war, were all catalysts in the formulation of this multilateral attempt to regulate the transfer of advanced technologies capable of being weaponized.[iii] With more and more incidents coming to light of authoritarian regimes utilizing advanced western technology to violate human rights, the WA was amended to bring within its ambit “intrusion software” and “IP network surveillance systems” as well. 

Wassenaar: A General Outline

With a current membership of 42 countries (India being the latest to join in late 2017), the WA is the successor to the cold war-era Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) which had been established by the Western Bloc in order to prevent weapons and technology exports to the Eastern Bloc or what was then known as the Soviet Union.[iv] However, unlike its predecessor, the WA does not target any nation-state, and its members cannot exercise any veto power over other member’s export decisions.[v] Notably, while Russia is a member, Israel and China are not.

The WA lists out the different technologies in the form of “Control Lists” primarily consisting of the “List of Dual-Use Goods and Technologies” or the Basic List, and the “Munitions List”.[vi] The term “dual-use technology” typically refers to technology that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.[vii] The Basic List consists of ten categories[viii]

  • Special Materials and Related Equipment (Category 1); 
  • Materials Processing (Category 2); 
  • Electronics (Category 3); 
  • Computers (Category 4); 
  • Telecommunications (Category 5, Part 1); 
  • Information Security (Category 5, Part 2); 
  • Sensors and Lasers (Category 6); 
  • Navigation and Avionics (Category 7); 
  • Marine (Category 8); 
  • Aerospace and Propulsion (Category 9). 

Additionally, the Basic List also has the Sensitive and Very Sensitive Lists which include technologies covering radiation, submarine technology, advanced radar, etc. 

An outline of the WA’s principles is provided in its Guidelines & Procedures, including the Initial Elements. Typically, participating countries enforce controls on transfer of the listed items by enacting domestic legislation requiring licenses for export of these items and are also expected to ensure that the exports “do not contribute to the development or enhancement of military capabilities which undermine these goals, and are not diverted to support such capabilities.[ix]

While the Guidelines & Procedures document does not expressly proscribe the export of the specified items to non-WA countries, members are expected to notify other participants twice a year if a license under the Dual List is denied for export to any non-WA country.[x]

Amid concerns of violation of civil liberties

Unlike conventional weapons, cyberspace and information technology is one of those sectors where the government does not yet have a monopoly in expertise. In what can only be termed a “cyber-arms race”, it would be fair to say that most governments are even now busily acquiring technology from private companies to enhance their cyber-capacity, which includes surveillance technology for intelligence-gathering efforts. This, by itself, is plain real-politik.

However, amid this weaponization of the cyberspace, there were growing concerns that this technology was being purchased by authoritarian or repressive governments for use against their citizens. For instance, Eagle, monitoring technology owned by Amesys (a unit of the French firm Bull SA), Boeing Co.’s internet-filtering Narus, and China’s ZTE Corp. all contributed to the surveillance efforts by Col. Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Surveillance technology equipment sold by Siemens AG and maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks were used against human rights activists in Bahrain. These instances, as part of a wider pattern that came to the spotlight, galvanized the WA countries in 2013 to include “intrusion software” and “IP network surveillance systems” in the Control List to attempt to limit the transfer of these technologies to known repressive regimes. 

Unexpected Consequences

The 2013 Amendment to the Control Lists was the subject of severe criticism by tech companies and civil society groups across the board. While the intention behind it was recognized as laudable, the terms “intrusion software” and “IP network surveillance system” were widely viewed as over-broad and having the unintended consequence of looping in both legitimate as well as illegitimate use of technology. The problems pointed out by cybersecurity experts are manifold and are a result of a misunderstanding of how cybersecurity works.

The inclusion of these terms, which was meant to regulate surveillance based on computer codes / programmes, also has the consequence of bringing within its ambit legitimate and often beneficial uses of these technologies, including even antivirus technology according to one view. Cybersecurity research and development often involves making use of “zero-day exploits” or vulnerabilities in the developed software, which when discovered and reported by any “bounty hunter”, is typically bought by the company owning the software. This helps the company immediately develop a “patch” for the reported vulnerability. These transactions are often necessarily cross-border. Experts complained that if directly transposed to domestic law, the changes would have a chilling effect on the vital exchange of information and research in this area, which was a major hurdle for advances in cybersecurity, making cyberspace globally less safer. A prime example is HewlettPackard’s (HP)  withdrawal from Pwn2Own—a computer hacking contest held annually at the PacSecWest security conference where contestants are challenged to hack into / exploit vulnerabilities on widely used software. HP, which sponsored the event, was forced to withdraw in 2015 citing the “complexity in obtaining real-time import /export licenses in countries that participate in the Wassenaar Arrangement”, among others. The member nation in this case was Japan.

After facing fierce opposition on its home soil, the United States decided to not implement the WA amendment and instead, decided to argue for a reversal at the next Plenary session of the WA, which failed. Other nations, including the EU and Japan have implemented the WA amendment export controls with varying degrees of success.

The Pegasus Hack, India and the Wassenaar

Considering many of the Indians identified as victims of the Pegasus hack were either journalists or human rights activists, with many of them being associated with the highly-contentious Bhima-Koregaon case, speculation is rife that the Indian government is among those purchasing and utilizing this kind of advanced surveillance technology to spy on its own citizens. Adding this to the NSO Group’s public statement that its “sole purpose” is to “provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime”, it appears there are credible allegations that the Indian government was involved in the hack. The government’s evasiveness in responding and insistence on so-called “standard operating procedures” having been followed are less than reassuring.

While India’s entry to the WA as its 42nd member in 2018 has certainly elevated its status in the international arms control regime by granting it access to three of the world’s four main arms-control regimes (the others being the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group / NSG, the Missile Technology Control Group / MTCR and the Australia Group), the Pegasus Hack incident and the apparent connection to the Indian government shows us that its commitment to the principles underlying the WA is doubtful. The purpose of the inclusion of “intrusion software” and “IP network surveillance system” in the WA’s Control Lists by way of the 2013 Amendment, no matter their unintended consequences for legitimate uses of such technology, was to prevent governmental purchases exactly like this one. Hence, even though the WA does not prohibit the purchase of any surveillance technology from a non-member, the Pegasus incident arguably, is still a serious detraction from India’s commitment to the WA, even if not an explicit violation.

Military Cyber-Capability Vs Law Enforcement Cyber-Capability

Given what we know so far, it appears that highly sophisticated surveillance technology has also come into the hands of local law enforcement agencies. Had it been disclosed that the Pegasus software was being utilized by a military wing against external enemies, by, say, even the newly created Defence Cyber Agency, it would have probably caused fewer ripples. In fact, it might even have come off as reassuring evidence of the country’s advanced cyber-capabilities. However, the idea of such advanced, sophisticated technologies at the easy disposal of local law enforcement agencies is cause for worry. This is because while traditionally the domain of the military is external, the domain of law enforcement agencies is internal, i.e., the citizenry. There is tremendous scope for misuse by such authorities, including increased targeting of minorities. The recent incident of police officials in Hyderabad randomly collecting biometric data including their fingerprints and clicking people’s pictures only exacerbates this point. Even abroad, there already exist on-going efforts to limit the use of surveillance technologies by local law enforcement such as the police.

The conflation of technology use by both military and civil agencies  is a problem that is created in part at least, by the complex and often dual-use nature of technology. While dual use technology is recognized by the WA, this problem is not one that it is able to solve. As explained above, dual use technology is technology that can be used for both civil and military purposes. The demands of real-politik, increase in cyber-terrorism and the manifold ways in which a nation’s security can be compromised in cyberspace necessitate any government in today’s world to increase and improve its cyber-military-capacity by acquiring such technology. After all, a government that acquires surveillance technology undoubtedly increases the effectiveness of its intelligence gathering and ergo, its security efforts. But at the same time, the government also acquires the power to simultaneously spy on its own citizens, which can easily cascade into more targeted violations. 

Governments must resist the impulse to turn such technology on its own citizens. In the Indian scenario, citizens have been granted a ring of protection by way of the Puttaswamy judgement, which explicitly recognizes their right to privacy as a fundamental right. Interception and surveillance by the government while currently limited by laid-down protocols, are not regulated by any dedicated law. While there are calls for urgent legislation on the subject, few deal with the technology procurement processes involved. It has also now emerged that Chhattisgarh’s State Government has set up a panel to look into allegations that that NSO officials had a meeting with the state police a few years ago. This raises questions of oversight in the relevant authorities’ public procurement processes, apart from their legal authority to actually carry out domestic surveillance by exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities.  It is now becoming evident that any law dealing with surveillance will need to ensure transparency and accountability in the procurement of and use of the different kinds of invasive technology adopted by Central or State authorities to carry out such surveillance. 


[i]A Guide to the Wassenaar Arrangement, Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Association, December 9, 2013, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/wassenaar, last accessed on November 27, 2019.

[ii]Ibid.

[iii]Data, Interrupted: Regulating Digital Surveillance Exports, Tim Maurerand Jonathan Diamond, November 24, 2015, World Politics Review.

[iv]Wassenaar Arrangement: The Case of India’s Membership, Rajeswari P. Rajagopalan and Arka Biswas, , ORF Occasional Paper #92 p.3, OBSERVER RESEARCH FOUNDATION, May 5, 2016, http://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/ORF-Occasional-Paper_92.pdf, last accessed on November 27, 2019.

[v]Ibid, p. 3

[vi]“List of Dual-Use Goods and Technologies And Munitions List,” The Wassenaar Arrangement, available at https://www.wassenaar.org/public-documents/, last accessed on November 27, 2019. 

[vii]Article 2(1), Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL setting up a Union regime for the control of exports, transfer, brokering, technical assistance and transit of dual-use items (recast), European Commission, September 28th, 2016, http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2016/september/tradoc_154976.pdf, last accessed on November 27, 2019. 

[viii]supra note vi.

[ix]Guidelines & Procedures, including the Initial Elements, The Wassenaar Arrangement, December, 2016, http://www.wassenaar.org/wp- content/uploads/2016/12/Guidelines-and-procedures-including-the-Initial-Elements-2016.pdf, last accessed on November 27, 2019.

[x]Articles V(1) & (2), Guidelines & Procedures, including the Initial Elements, The Wassenaar Arrangement, December, 2016, https://www.wassenaar.org/public-documents/, last accessed on November 27, 2019.

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