It is shocking news that an espionage operation was carried out by infiltration through social media platform Whatsapp into the cyber communications of political adversaries who criticise the government including mediapersons, human rights activists and academic scholars.
The news that has surfaced is that Pegasus a spyware developed and sold by NSO, an Israeli surveillance entity for espionage was used to get into Whatsapp messages and the private information about users. Data about 1,400 users worldwide are reported to have been compromised thrugh the operation. Whatsapp has sued NSO and its parent technology firm Q-Cyber Technologies, who are in the dock for the exercise, in a US federal court in San Francisco last Tuesday.
It was in May this year that Whatsapp detected suspicious calls in its messaging service networks from Sweden, Netherlands, Israela nd other countries. In the investigation conducted through parent firm Facebook, it was found that by using unauthorised spyware - software used for pilferage of data - voice and video calls were copied to certain target phones. The spyware that hacked into the phones in this manner asked the users to upload the information in the mobile phones on servers of Amazon web server or other servers. The data so stolen were stored there and set the stage for hackers for gathering data. NSO achieved its aim by making a series of Whatsapp calls, injecting spyware and installing them in the victims' phones. The fact that even missed calls reaching the mobile phones were made a means of data theft, has stunned the largest messaging platform. Although Whatsapp informed the world on 13 May that it was made a victim of a lethal attack, it was not clear who were responsible for it. The hacking of over 1,400 phone numbers was detected and the vulnerability was patched.
But, due to the privacy protection code followed by Whatsapp, the owners of the numbers could not be identified. It was following this that the Citizen Lab of Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy of Toronto University was chartered to identify the culprit and the victims. Its experts scrutinised the data to find out that there were civil society members among the victims of espionage. The result is what has emerged now. Although Whatsapp informed the owners of the affected numbers, it has not made it public who they are.
However, it is alleged that data about over 20 Indians including human rights champions, Dalit activists, lawyers and mediapersons were harvested by using Israeli spyware Pegasus. Nihal Sing Rathore, lawyer involved in the Bhima-Koregaon case, Bela Bhatia, civil rights activist in Chhattisgarh, Anand Teltumbde, academician and activist and mediaperson Shubhranshu Choudhary have complained that they were subjected to Whatsapp intrusion. Pegasus did also target four lawyers who conduct the legal case of the 10 human rights activists who were arrested on charges of links with Maoists in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon case.
But at the sime time, the Israeli espionage firm NSO, who said that they will face the Whatsapp suit legally, also affirm that their aim is a safe world against terrorism and they sell the spyware only to responsible government intelligence machinery and security agencies. They argue that they have not given any licence to use it against any human rights advocates. With this, the Congress leaders and human rights groups have come out with the allegation that the use of Pegasus against human rights activists in India was evidently with the knowledge of the central government. However, IT Minister Ravishankar Prasad refutes that charge saying that the government has asked Whatsapp for its explanation. The Minister also says that there is well-defined interception protocol in the country to gather such information under the supervision of high-level officers of central and state governments, in patent national interest, thereby implying that such a circuitous channel is not required. That said, the culprit in the incident is not Whatsapp, but NSO. And the Israeli outfit for its part has explained that it does sell to governments for the 'fight against terror'. It is also reported that this had earlier been used in the liquidation of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and in the Mexican government's crackdown on the country's dissidents. Therefore, in the light of the revelation that those hunted by the government of India and that critics of the governmental machinery were subjected to 'Pegasus syndrome', the demand by the Opposition and civil rights advocates that the government should disclose which agency had bought Israeli espionage software and against whom it was used, is justified. The Centre, which asked Whatsapp for clarity on the issue, has also the obligation to remove the smokescreen before the people and to protect the counry from falling into anarchy.