Justice (retired) BN Srikrishna, who has chaired a committee of experts on data protection, has told The Indian Express that he is alarmed by the surveillance of phones of Indian human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, and scholars by operatives using a WhatsApp spyware called Pegasus that was developed by an Israeli company. “If the reports are true, we may be sliding into an Orwellian state with Big Brother snooping on us, as depicted in the novel 1984,” Srikrishna said.

Asked what the government should do to prevent illegal snooping, Srikrishna said: “Generate strong public opinion against what you see as a clear onslaught on democratic and constitutional rights of citizens.”

Pegasus, developed by the NSO Group, was used to hack into any phone simply through a missed call, predominantly via WhatsApp, giving the attackers unfettered access to the device, including location data, emails, passwords and even the ability to turn on its microphone and camera.

In India, most news reports have mentioned estimates of 25-50 individuals targeted. According to The Indian Express, WhatsApp has told the Centre 121 Indians were targeted. Scroll.in has been able to confirm 22 such cases, with most of the victims primarily working in the field of human rights. Other reports have mentioned political targets, such as former Union Minister Praful Patel. The Congress has claimed party General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi was also alerted about the spyware attack.

Last week, WhatsApp said it had informed government authorities about the privacy breach in May. The tech company reportedly sent the Centre a second alert in September. It attached the two vulnerability notes in its response to a government notice last week.

Srikrishna was appointed to head the data protection committee on July 31, 2017. The following month, in a landmark decision in the Puttaswamy case, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld right to privacy as a fundamental right under Constitution. The committee, meanwhile, held public hearings across India and submitted a report on July 28, 2018. The panel proposed a draft data protection law, which Parliament is yet to enact.

A data protection law will influence surveillance reform measures, and set the framework for preventing governments and other entities from conducting illegal surveillance. “Ensure that all surveillance is done strictly in accordance with and within the Constitutional parameters laid down in Part III of the Constitution and as interpreted in the Puttaswamy judgement.”

Asked if whistleblower protection could help reveal unconstitutional acts of snooping by the government, the retired Supreme Court judge said any law was only as strong as the will of the people implementing it. “Whistleblower protection must be insisted upon and upheld, particularly when it is directed to uncover wrongs of the state,” Srikrishna added.

Also read:

  1. WhatsApp spyware: How many people have been targeted by the Pegasus hack?
  2. Can the government confirm it did not use WhatsApp spyware on Indians?
  3. Where is the personal data protection law that Indians were promised?

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