Former Union minister Praful Patel and former Lok Sabha MP Santosh Bharatiya were among at least 41 individuals who were targets of a WhatsApp hacking earlier this year, Hindustan Times reported on Friday, citing an unidentified official from the messaging platform. So far, 17 individuals, including lawyers, human rights activists, and journalists, have confirmed to Scroll.in that they were targeted by spyware on WhatsApp.
The WhatsApp official told the newspaper that of the 41 individuals who were targets of surveillance, 21 were journalists, lawyers or activists. Some of the people Scroll.in spoke to mentioned that Indian government agencies may have been involved in the surveillance, as they were informed by Citizen Lab, a Canada-based cyber security group that is assisting WhatsApp in investigating the spyware attack.
Patel, a leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, said he had received a message from WhatsApp but could not recall being approached by Citizen Lab. The WhatsApp official said that many people could have not paid attention to the alert.
Bharatiya said he ignored the texts as he was unsure of the Citizen Lab or WhatsApp’s messages. “I am a Hindi journalist, with little knowledge of how these technologies work. I don’t know why I was even targeted,” he told the Hindustan Times.
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 has refuted the allegations but said that it has sold Pegasus only to government agencies. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology sought WhatsApp’s response on the security breach by November 4.
Activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan on Thursday said he planned to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court to seek an inquiry into the WhatsApp hacking. The lawyer alleged that Prasad’s statement showed that the surveillance was ordered unofficially, and therefore, illegally.
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