Activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan has planned to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court to seek an inquiry into the WhatsApp hacking of at least two dozen individuals, including lawyers, human rights activists, and journalists, HuffPost India reported on Thursday. Seventeen individuals have so far confirmed to Scroll.in that they were targeted by spyware on the messaging platform WhatsApp.
“We will ask that the government should come clean about whose phones were tapped and who ordered it, and there should be complete accountability; there should be an investigation into this,” Bhushan said. “Full investigation by cyber experts.” On the question of whether he would file a PIL, the senior lawyer added that the episode was a matter of “grave public interest and importance”.
Earlier on Thursday, reports revealed that several members of the civil society in India may have been the targets of surveillance through a spyware, Pegasus, purportedly developed by an Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group. Pegasus was used to target around 1,400 users globally during a two-week period in May.
Among those who may have been targeted are Chhattisgarh-based activist Shalini Gera, Nagpur-based lawyer Nihalsing Rathod, Adivasi rights activist Bela Bhatia, academic and writer on Dalit issues Anand Teltumbde, former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary, and Chandigarh-based lawyer, associated with the Bhima Koregaon case, Ankit Grewal.
The Israeli firm refuted the allegations and claimed that it has sold Pegasus only to government agencies. Following reports, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology sought WhatsApp’s response on the security breach by November 4.
However, Bhushan alleged that the central government ordered the security breach. “This kind of spyware or malware which the Israeli government uses can only be used by governments. And therefore it is clear that it was the [Modi] government, or at the [Modi] government’s orders, that this kind of targeting has been done of the human rights activists and lawyers and journalists etc. It’s a gross violation of the right to privacy of the people.”
The lawyer pointed out that the hacking violated many Supreme Court judgments, including on the Right to Privacy and a ruling on the People’s Union Of Civil Liberties in which the top court had established guidelines on phone tapping. He added that, if required, the Centre could have carried out surveillance through procedures laid down in the 1996 Supreme Court judgement.
Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is in charge of the IT ministry, said on Thursday that the government was concerned about the breach, and that state agencies have a well-established protocol for interception for clearly stated reasons in national interest.
However, Bhushan alleged that Prasad’s statement showed that the surveillance was ordered unofficially, and therefore, illegally. The government may tap WhatsApp calls if needed, but the authorities had to follow due process, he said.
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