New Delhi: Amid the growing storm over spyware on WhatsApp being used against journalists and human rights activists in India, the government has sought a detailed explanation from the Facebook-owned messaging platform on the issue.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Thursday asked WhatsApp to submit a reply by November 4, PTI reported. Information Technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government is “concerned” at the breach of privacy of citizens even as he sought to deflect questions by raking up alleged attempts to spy against then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and General VK Singh in 2011 and 2013, respectively.
After it was reported that 10 activists have come forward confirming that Israeli spyware Pegasus was used to snoop on them through WhatsApp, Prasad posted a series of tweets in which he called out “those trying to make political capital out” of the scandal.
The minister said the messaging platform has been to explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens.
“Govt agencies have a well-established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central & state governments, for clear stated reasons in national interest (sic),” he said, seeking to deny allegations that government had a hand in the snooping effort on activists, lawyers and activists.
However, officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs said reports of the breach are an attempt to malign India and that the government is committed to protecting the fundamental rights of its citizens.
The officials added that the government will take strict action against any intermediary responsible for breach of privacy of citizens.
The issue came to the fore after WhatsApp said it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, which is reportedly behind the Pegasus software that helped unnamed entities' spies hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users globally. In India, at least over 20 users are said to be impacted but the number could be higher.
Among the activists and others targeted in India were two lawyers for those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case in June 2018. 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.
Prasad raised the earlier attempts at alleged breach of privacy of Mukherjee and Singh, and said they were against “highly reputed individuals for personal whims and fancies of a family.” His response came after the Congress accused the BJP government of snooping.
“Those trying to make political capital out of it need to be gently reminded about the bugging incident in the office of the then eminent Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee during UPA regime. Also a gentle reminder of the spying over the then Army Chief Gen. V. K. Singh (sic),” the minister tweeted.
Mukherjee as finance minister in 2011 had confirmed that a search for snooping devices was conducted in his office after fears of a breach, but no electronic bugs were found by intelligence agencies.
In VK Singh’s case, the General’s family in 2013 had alleged a bugging attempt at his residence after a Major from the Signals entered their house at Mandir Marg to remove the Army telephone exchange once his Z-plus security was removed after his retirement.
Opposition hits out at government
The Congress claimed that the Narendra Modi-led government has been "caught snooping" after reports of the privacy breach were made public. The party also urged the Supreme Court to hold the Centre accountable over the issue.
Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi added a Rafale angle to the row.
"The government seeking WhatsApp's response on who bought Pegasus to spy on Indian citizens is like Modi asking Dassault who made money on the sale of Rafale jets to India," he said in a tweet.
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Dhananjay Munde also condemned the "snooping" on Indian journalists and human right activists through WhatsApp and wrote to Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, seeking steps to stop such spying activities. He also demanded the guilty concerned be given strict punishment.