The government today asked WhatsApp for an explanation on a snowballing snooping scandal after WhatsApp confirmed it had informed several Indian users this week that they had been targeted by Israeli spyware earlier this year in a hacking spree that included journalists, activists, lawyers, and senior government officials.
The journalists and activists are believed to have been targets of surveillance for a two-week period until May, when the national election was held.
The users were informed just before WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook sued Israeli cybersecurity company NSO on Tuesday, alleging that it used WhatsApp servers to spread malware to 1,400 users across 20 countries. Pegasus, spyware developed by NSO, was used to break into the phones during a two-week period in April.
“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,” tweeted Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Nihal Singh Rathod, a human rights lawyer representing several accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, is among the targets. Others include activist Bela Bhatia, lawyer-activist Degree Prasad Chauhan, rights activist Anand Teltumbde and journalist Sidhant Sibal.
“The person who called me explained how I had been targeted and the person clearly told me ‘we can clearly and categorically say your own government has done this’,” Bela Bhatia, an activist who works in Chhattisgarh, told NDTV.
The Israeli NSO, denying any wrongdoing, stated, “Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists” and is licensed only to “vetted and legitimate government agencies”.
The spyware gave snoops access to users’ messages, calls and passwords as it took over the phone’s operating system. It could also turn the mobile into a microphone that could listen to conversations in a room.
WhatsApp, seeking more than $75,000 in damages from NSO, said in a statement: “We quickly added new protections to our systems and issued an update to WhatsApp to help keep people safe. We are now taking additional action, based on what we have learned to date.” WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion users globally, of which India accounts for about 400 million.