The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology on Thursday asked WhatsApp to reply to reports about a security breach in which several prominent Indian lawyers, activists and journalists were targeted, News18 reported. The ministry asked the messaging platform to respond by November 4.
Till now, Scroll.in has confirmed the identities of more than 15 of the targeted individuals. The Indians include lawyers in the Bhima Koregaon case. At least two dozen Indian journalists, academics, Dalit activists and lawyers may have been targeted, The Indian Express reported on Thursday.
WhatsApp had on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against an Israeli firm whose spyware was used to target users of the messaging platform. NSO Group, the Israeli cyber intelligence company, has disputed the allegations but said that the spyware, Pegasus, has been sold only to government agencies.
WhatsApp said the security breach took place during a two-week period in May. Scroll.in spoke to targets who were alerted by both Citizen Lab, a Canada-based cyber security group, and WhatsApp. Citizen Lab, based in the University of Toronto, said that after the incident in May, it had volunteered to help WhatsApp identify cases of the breach in which the targets were human rights activists and journalists. It claimed to have identified over 100 such cases in at least 20 countries.
The Indian individuals who were targeted include Chhattisgarh-based Adivasi rights activist Bela Bhatia, Nagpur-based lawyer Nihalsing Rathod, human rights activist Degree Prasad Chauhan, former BBC journalist and now peace activist Shubhranshu Choudhary, People’s Union for Democratic Rights activist Ashish Gupta, and assistant professor of Political Science at Delhi University Saroj Giri. Scroll.in is in the process of identifying others affected by the security breach.
Nihalsing Rathod claimed to Scroll.in that incriminatory letters cited as evidence in the Bhima Koregaon case may have been planted by government agencies through the spyware. Rathod is a lawyer for accused Surendra Gadling in the case. Most of the other targeted individuals told Scroll.in that they may have been targeted due to their human rights activism.
The police claim to have recovered several letters from the computers, pen drives and memory cards of the 10 activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case since June 2018. The letters allegedly hinted at an intricate Maoist conspiracy to destabilise the country, dislodge the Bharatiya Janata Party government and assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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