New Delhi: Several individuals — human rights activists, scholars and journalists —confirmed to some websites that they were targeted by spyware on WhatsApp. Some of them suggested that Indian government agencies may have been involved in the surveillance.
The Congress on Thursday alleged that the Modi government has been “caught snooping” after WhatsApp said that journalists and human rights activists in India have been targets of surveillance. While the Congress urged the Supreme Court to hold the Centre accountable over the issue, the government denied allegations of snooping in the wake of claims made by Facebook-owned Whats-App that Indian journalists and human rights activists were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using Israeli spyware, Pegasus.
“A government that spies on journalists/ activists/Opposition leaders and treats its own citizens like criminals has lost the right to lead in our democracy. We urge the SC to take suo motu cognizance of these illegal activities and to hold this government to account,” he said. He also posted questions on Twitter for information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad over the issue.
“1. Which agency of GOI has purchased and deployed the Pegasus Surveillance Software? 2. Who — PMO or NSA — authorised the purchase? 3. What action do you intend on taking against the guilty?” he asked.
Issuing a clarification on the contentious issue, the government stated, “Some statements have appeared based on reports in media regarding breach of privacy of Indian citizens on Whatsapp. These attempts to malign the Government of India for the reported breach are completely misleading.” The statement further added, “Government of India is committed to protecting the fundamental rights of citizens, including the right to privacy, and will take strict action against any intermediary responsible for breach of privacy.”
The government has asked the messaging platform to explain the breach and list out measures that have been taken to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indians. The response is expected by November 4.
Prasad hit out at the Opposition, saying those trying to make political gain out of the issue should be reminded of bugging incidents in the office of former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee during the UPA regime, as also spying over then Army Chief General, V.K. Singh.
He asserted that government agencies have a “well-established protocol for an interception which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central and state governments, for clearly stated reasons in the national interest”.
WhatsApp said it is suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm that is reportedly behind the technology that helped unnamed entities’ spies to hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users worldwide.
These users span across four continents and included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials. However, it did not say on whose behest the phones of journalists and activists across the world were targeted.
These reports have once again given ammunition to the Opposition to target the government over privacy in the upcoming winter session of Parliament.
Refusing to divulge identities or the exact number of those targeted in India, WhatsApp said it had in May stopped a highly sophisticated cyberattack that exploited its video calling system to send malware to its users.
WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion users globally, of which India alone accounts for about 400 million. In the past too, WhatsApp has drawn flak from the Indian government on the platform being misused for spreading misinformation that led to incidents of mob lynching.
The government has categorically told WhatsApp that it wants the platform to bring in a mechanism to enable tracing of the originator of messages, a demand that WhatsApp has resisted citing privacy issues. The government is also working on tightening rules of social media companies in India that will increase the accountability of such platforms.
Condemning the “snooping” of Indian journalists and human right activists through WhatsApp, NCP leader Dhananjay Munde on Thursday wrote to Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, seeking steps to stop such spying activities.
He also demanded that the guilty concerned be given strict punishment.
In his letter, Munde drew the Governor’s attention towards a media report about certain spyware snooping during the Lok Sabha poll period between April 20 and May 10.
The newly-elected MLA also mentioned about a matter in this connection pending before a US court.
“Steps be taken to ensure such snooping is stopped. Strict punishment is given to the guilty concerned,” he said.