WhatsApp has confirmed that Pegasus, a spyware product developed by the Israeli company NSO Group that develops technology for governments to fight terrorism and crime, was used to snoop on Indian journalists and human rights activists. The company says that their phones were under surveillance for two weeks in May 2019 – the period coincides with the 2019 General Elections in India. The matter came into light following a lawsuit in a federal court in San Francisco, US, in which the Facebook-owned instant messaging platform alleged that over 1,400 users were under surveillance by the spyware.
As per the reports making rounds on the internet, a WhatsApp spokesperson has confirmed that the company was aware of the issue and had contacted each one of the users. The source, however, neither disclosed the exact number of Indians that were targeted nor revealed the identities of those affected. The spokesperson did say that the number of those targeted was ‘not an insignificant number.’ It is believed that at least two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists, and journalists across India were alerted by WhatsApp.
Meanwhile, the NSO Group has denied any wrongdoing. ‘In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them. Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists,’ NSO Group told The Indian Express. The company says that it licenses the software only to vetted and legitimate government agencies.
The NSO Group came under lens earlier this year when Amnesty International filed a lawsuit in an Israeli court alleging that the Pegasus has been used to keep tabs on its staff and other human rights activists. During the same time period, Whatsapp had fixed a vulnerability in the app’s calling feature that allowed cybercriminals to inject Pegasus on people’s phones. The spyware could be installed on iPhones as well as on Android devices by just making a WhatsApp call to the target.
The spyware can turn on a phone’s camera, microphone to listen to the conversations and collect location data. According to a report in The Financial Times, intelligence agencies in the Middle Eastern and Western countries are its customers.
The Indian government has asked WhatsApp for a response on the issue by November 4. Meanwhile, WhatsApp has sought more than $75,000 in damages from NSO. The instant messaging platform also said that it has ‘quickly added new protections to the 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.’
Modi Govt caught snooping!— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) 31 October 2019
Appalling but not Surprising!
After all, BJP Govt-
1. Fought against our right to privacy.
2. Set up a multi crore Surveillance Structure until stopped by SC.
S.C must take immediate cognisance & issue notice to BJP Govt.
2/2— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) 31 October 2019
A Govt. that spies on journalists/activists/Oppo leaders & treats its own citizens like criminals has lost the right to lead in our democracy.
We urge the S.C to take suo moto cognizance of these illegal activities and to hold this Govt to account.https://t.co/VFVlEA187E
The Congress has urged the Supreme Court to take immediate cognisance and issue a notice to the BJP government. ‘Modi Government caught snooping! Appalling but not Surprising! After all, the BJP Government fought against our right to privacy, set up a multi-crore Surveillance Structure until stopped by the Supreme Court. SC must take immediate cognisance and issue a notice to the BJP government,’ Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted.