The confirmation by WhatsApp that the mobile phones of several Indian rights activists and journalists had been hacked into has sparked a furore with privacy activists asking the government to clarify. The spyware — Pegasus — sold by Israel’s NSO Group was used to tap into 1,400 WhatsApp accounts globally.
Responding to queries from ET, the NSO Group disputed the allegations. “The sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime. Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists. It has helped to save thousands of lives over recent years,” the company said in a statement.
On Thursday, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad took to Twitter to reiterate the Centre’s concern at the breach of privacy of Indians, and said his ministry had sought an explanation from the app. WhatsApp has to reply by November 4. Home ministry officials said ‘attempts to malign the government’ for the reported breach were misleading.
The government operates strictly as per provisions of law and there were adequate provisions to ensure that no innocent citizen was harassed or his privacy breached,” said one of the home ministry officials. They added that the government was committed to protect the fundamental rights of citizens, including the right to privacy, and would take strict action against any intermediary responsible for any breach.
A WhatsApp spokesperson confirmed to ET that Indian users were among those contacted this week.
Facebook and WhatsApp had filed a lawsuit against the Israeli company in a California court on October 29.
Some of the affected Indian activists include lawyer Nihal Singh Rathod, activists Bela Bhatia and Degree Prasad Chauhan, academician Anand Teltumbde and former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary. They were alerted by WhatsApp earlier this month that their phones had been under surveillance for a two-week period in May 2019. The Indian Express reported the development on Thursday.