It might seem paradoxical to question whether we can own something that is ours; by definition we can only own something that belongs to us, so our data must be our property – our right. However, recent revelations about the NSO Group owned Pegasus software forces us to question whether we truly have autonomy over our own property – are we covertly shifting to a surveillance state?
Pegasus is a spyware that was developed by the Israeli owned NSO Group to be used by government agencies. The software, which is named after the Greek mythical creature, mimics Trojan viruses that much like a Pegasus can ‘fly through the air’ to contaminate the data integrity of mobile devices. The software, essentially, allowed for the covert installation of applications that could, essentially, allow governments to peep into all the data saved on one’s mobile device from reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords and location tracking. The clandestine purpose that the software serves makes it a valued weapon for politicians and high-level government officials to have in their arsenal.
While the NSO Group asserts that this software exists solely to allow government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to use technology to combat the challenges of encryption, civil liberty groups such as Amnesty strongly urge people to recognize the blatant attack that this software has struck against our autonomy over our data. Albeit it might be easy to compare Pegasus’s transgression to the infringement that Facebook or Google conduct on our data daily, it would be incorrect to assert any similarity. The inherent differentiation in the purpose that each software serves suggests that Pegasus is a software that must be eradicated.
Where Facebook and Google serve to mine user’s data to generate an algorithm that ensures high customer engagement with the application, Pegasus doesn’t seek to be overt. Pegasus is not aiming to advertise or generate revenue; it aims to surveil. It aims to find out how one can be controlled if they step out of line. Reports suggest that Pegasus was notoriously used on the likes of Khashoggi and his allies.
The power this software bestows on high-level officials and politicians is unprecedented. The advent of technology has allowed us to store our lives on a 6x3 mobile device. Therefore, it is not just our phones that are susceptible to this infringement but our whole lives. Access to this information, not only, threatens to dismantle society’s understanding of autonomy but also has the potential to breakdown our notions of government and democracy. This software allows governments to turn politics into a ‘one way mirror’ – where our unawareness gives them a substantial advantage to violate our rights to their benefit.
How, then, can we claim that our data is our own? Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps the transcendental nature of our data allows it to be repurposed and redirected into the hands of those who, for better or for worse, know everything that is going on. But with this acceptance, must come the realization that autonomy, privacy, and freedom are nothing more than smoke screens.
Where the potential to own everyone’s data can turn into a reality, it seems unlikely that our ethical disposition will control the insatiability of those in power.