WhatsApp has responded to the notice issued by Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and said it notified the government in early September that 121 Indians were targeted by the Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, The Indian Express reported on Sunday citing unidentified officials.
This was the second alleged alert from the messaging platform after May about the hacking of at least two dozen individuals, including lawyers, human rights activists, and journalists.
The Centre on Thursday had asked Facebook-owned WhatsApp to explain the nature of the privacy breach and the steps taken to protect Indian users by November 4. In response to the notice, Facebook-owned WhatsApp has attached both the vulnerability note filed in May and the September letter to the government.
IT Ministry officials confirmed the September letter to the newspaper from WhatsApp, which said personal data of Indians was likely accessed by the spyware. However, they claimed the letter was “still too vague”. They said the letter was “not very, very firm”, and that it did not have enough details.
“The letter says that it appears that some 121 people may have been affected but doesn’t specifically say what the impact was,” a source in the ministry told The Indian Express. “It doesn’t tell who, what, where…the identities which have now come out in the media. They have been trying to reach out to [those affected] through a Canadian group. Nowhere has the Indian government been involved.”
The May alert was part of a formal vulnerability disclosure that was made globally by WhatsApp, and the September communication was specific about Indian users who may have been targets, Hindustan Times reported.
An official in the IT ministry said they would respond to WhatsApp after deliberating on the company’s response.
The government had countered WhatsApp’s claims and said that the information shared in May was only about a technical vulnerability but nothing on the fact that the privacy of some Indian users had been compromised.
On Saturday, Interim Congress President Sonia Gandhi criticised the Centre over the WhatsApp hacking. She said such activities are “illegal, un-constitutional and shameful”. Bharatiya Janata Party working president JP Nadda criticised Gandhi for her comments. He asked who at 10 Janpath had authorised the surveillance of former President Pranab Mukherjee and then Army chief VK Singh during the United Progressive Alliance government. He added that the government has already clarified its stand on the matter.
The Indian individuals who were targeted include Chhattisgarh-based Adivasi rights activist Bela Bhatia, Shalini Gera, Academic and write Anand Teltumbde, 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, Chandigarh-based lawyer Ankit Grewal, Seema Azad, an activist with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Social and environmental activist Vivek Sundara, Journalist Sidhant Sibal, Strategic analyst Rajeev Sharma, activist Rupali Jadhav and assistant professor of Political Science at Delhi University Saroj Giri, among others.
WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group on Tuesday, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users, including political dissidents, journalists and government officials during a two-week period in May. NSO has denied the allegations.
India is WhatsApp’s biggest market, with 400 million users. The platform is globally used by some 1.5 billion people monthly and has often touted a high level of security, including end-to-end encrypted messages that cannot be deciphered by WhatsApp or other third parties.
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