121 Indian Citizens Targeted by Israeli Spyware; Who is Responsible?

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Reports said over 100 Indian citizens or activists were targeted by the spyware. WhatsApp said it alerted the Indian government in May and September after it noticed that altogether 121 Indian citizens were targeted by the spyware.

Zafar Aafaq | Caravan Daily

NEW DELHI – The issue of a privacy breach in the WhatsApp online messaging service owned by Facebook rocked India after a national daily, The Indian Express, broke the story last week. Several Indian journalists, lawyers, judges and social activists were snooped on, using spyware Pegasus of Israeli company NSO. It breached the security system in their phones via a WhatsApp video call.

Reports said over 100 Indian citizens or activists were targeted by the spyware. WhatsApp said it alerted the Indian government in May and September after it noticed that altogether 121 Indian citizens were targeted by the spyware. In one report, Indian Express identified 18 individuals in public life whose 1privacy was breached thus. These included advocate Ravindranath Bhalla of the Telangana high court, a Bastar-based advocate working for jailed activists, Shalini Gera, civil and Dalit rights activist Anand Teltumbde, Bastar-based human rights lawyer and activist Bela Somari, human rights activist associated with PUCL Seema Azad, and Delhi-based columnist and strategic affairs analyst Rajeev Sharma.

Whatsapp is used by over 1.4 billion people across the globe, of which India has a swarm of 400 million users.

As per reports, the Israeli firm planted the spyware by exploiting the Whatsapp’s buffer overflow vulnerability to get into these phones. By planting Pegasus spyware into the target phone, the surveillance firm could easily access the chats, calls, emails, browsing history and other online activities of the target user. NSO makes big money from the deal. Reports said it charged in millions for its spyware, but the company maintained that it sold the service to governments only, to fight crime.

Pegasus spying was first noticed in the summer of 2016 after its failed attempt to breach into an iPhone. WhatsApp revealed that it stopped a highly sophisticated cyber-attack that exploited the video calling system to send malware to the mobile devices of some WhatsApp users. The company claims it has issued the patch for the breach in May. It urged users to install the latest security updates. The company also started working in collaboration with Citizen Lab, a Toronto-based internet rights the group, which contacted the affected individuals, including the Indians, who were targeted by Pegasus. Reports said 1,400 users were contacted by WhatsApp to inform them about a possible breach privacy. Most victims of Pegasus attack in India were activists who worked for the rights of tribals and Dalits, the marginalised sections of the society. There are apprehensions that the BJP-led nationalist government in India might be responsible for this surveillance on dissenters.

Congress, the main opposition party, accused the government of using Pegasus to track the online activity of political rivals. The party claimed on Sunday that the WhatsApp link of its general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, was hacked by the Israeli surveillance firm during this year’s parliament election campaign. Assadudin Owaisi, a prominent Muslim voice in India’s political realm, called upon the government to take up the matter with the Israeli government directly. He wanted the government to summon the Israeli ambassador and get an explanation.

The Union home ministry denied it played any role in the hack and termed the reports of linking the government with the privacy breach as misleading and an attempt to malign the government. Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government was concerned about the breach of privacy and has asked WhatsApp to explain why the government was not informed if and when Indian citizens were also impacted by the privacy rule breach. WhatsApp countered the government’s claim and said it had alerted the Indian government twice, once in May and then in September. The government now says the information provided by WhatsApp was inadequate to launch efforts protecting the privacy of users.

There is a growing pressure on the government to make efforts for the protection of privacy of individuals, a right guaranteed to citizens by the Indian Constitution. Founder of Alt News news portal, Pratik Sinha, which counters the menace of fake news, said the question is, who in India can afford the services of the NSO. “The government needs to investigate who in India can afford to hire NSO and is interested in targeting select activists, lawyers and journalists, especially when NSO itself claims that it sells the software only to government agencies,” he wrote in The Hindu daily.

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