Meet the Indian activists, academics targeted in the WhatsApp snooping row

“The software costs millions of dollars. It has to be someone with lot of resources"

FILES-US-ISRAEL-IT-ESPIONAGE-HACKING-FACEBOOK-WHATSAPP WhatsApp has sued Israeli technology firm NSO Group, accusing it of using the Facebook-owned messaging service to conduct cyberespionage on journalists, human rights activists and others | AFP

After WhatsApp on Thursday said Indian journalists and human rights activists were among those spied upon by unnamed entities using an Israeli spyware Pegasus, there was a furore over breach of citizens' privacy. WhatsApp had said it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm that is reportedly behind the technology that helped unnamed entities' spies hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users spanning across four continents, including 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.

ALSO READ: WhatsApp snooping: NSO, Pegasus and the realm of digital spying

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. The mobile messaging giant said it had sent a special WhatsApp message to approximately 1,400 users that it has "reason to believe were impacted by this attack to directly inform them about what happened".

While the messaging giant did not 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."

Many of the Indian users—mainly academics and activists—snooped on via WhatsApp spoke out to Indian publications. WhatsApp worked closely with the US-based Citizen Lab to ascertain the break-ins. 

1. Bela Bhatia: The Bastar-based tribal activist, who is also a fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, told The Indian Express that Citizen Lab had contacted her in November, asking her to change the phone. "On October 29, WhatsApp sent a message informing me of what had happened." She had long accused the state of attacks and intimidation for her work; in 2017 January, she was reportedly attacked by a group of men threatening her family.

2. Shalini Gera: The lawyer for jailed activist Sudha Bharadwaj told Scroll that Citizen Lab informed her that “the software costs millions of dollars, and it cannot be your neighbourhood crank using it against you. It has to be someone with a lot of resources, like the state”. Sudha Bharadwaj, who was arrested by the Pune Police in the Bhima Koregaon case on charges of having links with Maoists, has been considered as the pivot of civil society in Chhattisgarh. Bharadwaj, 59, was born in the US, but renounced American citizenship when she turned 19. She is an IIT Kanpur alumnus.

3. Nihalsingh Rathod: A lawyer, who represented some of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, told Newslaundry that he was informed his phone was infected by spyware and his number was on a list of people whose phones were compromised. "He [the person who informed him] told me around 1,400 people across the world had fallen victim to a malware that turned out to be Israeli spyware. He did not say what the malware was called at the time, though.” Rathod, who heads the Human Rights Law Network, represented Surendra Gadling in the Bhima Koregaon case.

4. Shubranshu Choudhary: A former producer for BBC's South Asia bureau, Choudhary launched a community radio on mobile phone, CGnet Swara, which connected Chhattisgarh to voices within their community. "They [WhatsApp representatives] asked if I had seen some strange activities on my phone, I recalled I had, of material disappearing sometimes. I was then told I was on a ‘list’. They asked me if I would cooperate while they repaired the flaw," he told The Indian Express.

5. Anand Teltumbde: A professor with the Goa Institute of Management, Anand Teltumbde is a dalit activist who told Scroll that the concerns were legitimate. “They [Citizen Lab] told me the spyware was a sophisticated programme that could take control of your phone: turn on the microphone and the camera, steal your passwords.” He told Newslaundry: “They informed me that my phone had been attacked using spyware. This is very wrong on the part of the government,” he said. “They have been involved in tapping phones of many people for a long time. But using spyware to snoop on people is pernicious."

Seema Azad, a human rights lawyer with People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Siddhant Sibal, a defence correspondent with WION TV, activist Vivek Sundara and Ankit Grewal, a lawyer from Chandigarh associated with Sudha Bharadwaj were others who claimed WhatsApp informed them they were being snooped on. However, THE WEEK could not independently verify any of these claims.

Denying allegations by WhatsApp, NSO had said it provides "technology to licenced government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime" and is not "designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists."

Meanwhile, the Indian IT Ministry on Thursday wrote to WhatsApp, seeking a detailed response by November 4.

A senior government official told PTI that WhatsApp has been asked to give a detailed response to the entire allegations.

Prasad, in his tweet, said the government is committed to protecting the privacy of Indian citizens. He asserted that 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."

Earlier on Thursday, Congress had alleged that the Modi government has been "caught snooping" and urged the Supreme Court to hold the Centre accountable over the issue.

Hitting back at Opposition's charges, Prasad said those trying to derive political gains out of it should be reminded of bugging incidents in the office of former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee during the UPA regime, as also spying over the then Army chief Gen V.K. Singh.

"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," Prasad said.

WhatsApp had on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in a California federal court against NSO Group, which allegedly developed the spyware, saying an attempt was made to infect approximately 1,400 "target devices" globally with malicious software to steal valuable information from those using the messaging app.

WhatsApp said it "believes the attack targeted at least 100 members of civil society... this number may grow higher as more victims come forward".

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.