New Delhi: Facebook-owned WhatsApp on Thursday said Indian journalists and human rights activists were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using an Israeli sypware called Pegasus.
WhatsApp said it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, which is reportedly behind the technology that helped unnamed entities' spies hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users. These users span across four continents and included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and activists.
In India, at least 10 activists have come forward to confirm that they were targeted by the snooping software on the messaging platform. Among those targeted were two lawyers for human rights activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, Huffington Post and Scroll.in reported.
Others whose phones were compromised with the spyware included Dalit rights activists in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, media reports state.
While WhatsApp did not say on whose behest the phones of journalists and activists were targeted, the NSO Group has maintained that the Pegasus software is only sold to government agencies around the world.
According to 'The Indian Express', more than 20 Indians were alerted that their phones had been under surveillance for two weeks in May, just before the Lok Sabha elections. Sources denied allegations that the administration had any role in it.
"This is between WhatsApp, which is an American Company, and the Israeli company. WhatsApp does not have server in India. This is similar to the allegations leveled on Cambridge Analytica. We have been asking WhatsApp to provide at least traceability, if not decryption, so that in case of law and order situation, mischief makers can be traced, but WhatsApp hasn't cooperated," said the sources.
The IT Ministry has also sought a detailed response from WhatsApp by November 4.
Expressing concern over the breach of privacy, Union Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government has asked WhatsApp to explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens.
"The government is committed to protecting privacy of all Indian citizens. Government agencies have a well established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central and state governments, for clear stated reasons in national interest," he said in a statement released on his Twitter handle.
Government of India is concerned at the breach of privacy of citizens of India on the messaging platform Whatsapp. We have asked Whatsapp to explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens. 1/4 pic.twitter.com/YI9Fg1fWro— Ravi Shankar Prasad (@rsprasad) October 31, 2019
Refusing to divulge identities or the exact number of those targeted in India, WhatsApp said it had in May stopped a highly sophisticated cyber-attack that exploited its video calling system to send malware to its users.
Spies could deploy the malware on a cellphone by getting the user to click on an “exploit link”, or even through a missed WhatsApp video call. The malware would allow NSO's clients - said to be governments and intelligence organisations - to secretly spy on a phone's owner, opening their digital lives up to official scrutiny.
The mobile messaging giant said it had sent a special WhatsApp message to approximately 1,400 users globally that it has "reason to believe were impacted by this attack to directly inform them about what happened".
While the messaging giant didn't disclose the details or the number of people affected in India, a WhatsApp spokesperson said: "Indian users were among those contacted by us this week" and added that the number was “not insignificant”.
WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion users globally, of which India alone accounts for about 400 million. The Facebook-owned firm on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in a California federal court against NSO Group.
NSO has denied the allegations made by WhatsApp. Stating that it will contend the allegations, it said: "the sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licenced government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime".
Bhima Koregaon Link
Nagpur-based advocate Nihalsing Rathod, who represents several of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, told Huffpost and Scroll.in that his phone was targeted by Pegasus.
Rathod revealed that he was contacted by a senior researcher from the Toronto University’s CitizenLab informing him that he faced a “specific digital risk”. He showed screenshots of the message he received on October 7, 2019, telling him that his phone was impacted.
Lawyer Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, who represented Sudha Bharadwaj, one of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, said she too was impacted. She, too, was contacted by CitizenLab, a Canada-based cyber security group that is assisting WhatsApp in investigating the spyware attack.
Rathod further alleged that the incriminatory letters cited as evidence in the controversial case may have been planted by government agencies through the spyware.
The allegation is significant since much of the evidence produced by the investigative agencies in the case relies on files they claim were obtained from the computers and phones of the accused, who have been charged with waging war against the state.
Police have claimed to have recovered several letters from computers, pen drives and memory cards of the 10 activists who have been arrested. The letters allegedly hinted at a Maoist plot to destabilise the country, dislodge the Bharatiya Janata Party government and assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
CitizenLab was one of the first few organisations to examine how the Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware operated. In September 2018, it published comprehensive research identifying 45 countries, including India, in which operators of the spyware may be conducting operations.
Others impacted by the snooping software were - Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist in Chhattisgarh’s troubled Bastar region, Degree Prasad Chouhan, a lawyer and activist in Maharashtra who fights for rights of Dalits and Adivasis, Anand Teltumbde, a professor, writer and civil rights activist and Sidhant Sibal, a defence correspondent for Wion News TV channel, Newslaundry reported.
Pattern of Abuse
WhatsApp said in a statement that at least a 100 civil society members had been targeted, and called it “an unmistakable pattern of abuse.” The number, the company said, could rise in the coming days.
WhatsApp Head Will Cathcart said these victims include human rights defenders, journalists and other members of the civil society across the world.
"Tools that enable surveillance into our private lives are being abused, and the proliferation of this technology into the hands of irresponsible companies and governments puts us all at risk," Cathcart said in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
Cathcart asserted that WhatsApp was committed to the fundamental right to privacy and that it is working to stay ahead of those who seek to violate that right.
The company's lawsuit seeks to have NSO barred from accessing or attempting to access WhatsApp and Facebook's services and seeks unspecified damages.
NSO’s phone hacking software has already been implicated in a series of human rights abuses across Latin America and the Middle East, including a sprawling espionage scandal in Panama and an attempt to spy on an employee of the London-based rights group Amnesty International.
NSO came under particularly harsh scrutiny over the allegation that its spyware played a role in the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul a little over a year ago.