Indian academics and lawyers have accused Narendra Modi’s government of hacking into their phones, after discovering their WhatsApp accounts had been targeted earlier this year.
In the last week, WhatsApp and Toronto university’s Citizen Lab, which tracks digital surveillance, has attempted to contact the roughly 1,400 telephone numbers around the world that were believed to have been targeted by commercial Israeli spyware in a two-week period in May.
When successful, spyware was injected on to smartphones through WhatsApp’s voice call function. The Facebook-owned messaging service is suing NSO Group, the Israeli maker of the spyware, in the US over the attacks.
In India, some of the nearly two dozen alleged victims from civil society have been quick to accuse the government of using the spyware, which can access calls and messages and turn on a phone’s microphone and camera. The total number of targets in India was at least 120, a person familiar with the situation said.
“This is a very deeply personal domain that they have intruded into,” said Saroj Giri, an assistant professor of political science at Delhi University whose research focuses on radical communist groups, including the Maoist rebellion in Central India.
“Perhaps I was targeted because they think of me as an ideological catalyst, an influencer. I have defended the ideas of communism and I have defended radical movements around the world.”
Seema Azad, a human rights lawyer and fierce critic of Mr Modi’s government, publishes a magazine called Dastak Naye Samaye Ki (The Signs of the New Age). “I think they want to know what we human rights activists are planning,” she said. “In a technologically advanced fascist regime, they can do it easily with these technologies.”
Nihalsingh Rathod, a lawyer involved in the controversial Bhima Koregaon court case where the government has accused nine people of a conspiracy to help Maoist rebels smuggle weapons and carry out killings, said he suspected the government spied on him to help it prepare for court hearings.
Earlier this year, he said, he noticed that government prosecutors would appear in court prepared with researched responses to his petitions, including in one case, prepared medical reports to counter his petition for medical attention for a physically disabled defendant.
Mr Rathod said he had little or no contact with Maoist rebels. Indeed a senior Indian security official told the FT that Maoists rarely use phones, especially since they live in areas with little mobile signal.
Shubhranshu Choudhary, who was also informed that WhatsApp believes his phone was targeted, helps to run a local-language portal for tribal populations to voice their complaints against the government. He said he had no idea what information the government could possibly glean from his phone. A potential snooper may have wanted access to his phone’s contacts to identify targets, the Indian security official said.
Several leading Indian opposition politicians, including Priyanka Gandhi, a scion of the Gandhi dynasty, and Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, have said that their phones were targeted.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), and the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre, did not respond to a request for comment. The Ministry of Home Affairs declined to comment.
“This is one of the biggest surveillance scandals [in] India which we have seen in more than a decade,” said Apar Gupta, chief executive of the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, “there is a complete absence of both clarity as well as commitment by the government of India to take this matter seriously in terms of directly investigating the spyware.”
Instead, New Delhi has blamed WhatsApp, the most popular social media app in India with 400m users. “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 India’s electronics and information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday
WhatsApp sued the NSO Group in a California court last week, and said a six-month investigation into the breach, first revealed by the FT in May, showed a wide pattern of abuse by NSO’s clients of the technology on at least 100 journalists, human rights activists and opposition leaders in as many as 20 countries.
NSO declined to say if had it opened an investigation into possible abuse of its product on the Indian activists, but said in a statement that if any “investigation identifies actual or potential adverse impacts on human rights, we are proactive and swift to take the appropriate action to address them. This may include suspending or immediately terminating a customer’s use of the product, as we have done in the past.” NSO says it only sells the software, designated as a weapon by the Israeli government, to governments to fight terrorism and crime.
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