Human rights activists, lawyers, academics in India among those targeted in WhatsApp snooping

A Canada-based cyber-security group is helping WhatsApp investigate Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.
A Canada-based cyber-security group is helping WhatsApp investigate Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - An Indian professor writing on the caste system and downtrodden Dalits, a human rights lawyer working with marginalised communities and an environmental activist who has supported people protesting against a nuclear plant were among Indians targeted in a WhatsApp snooping scandal.

Around 20 Indian nationals, many of them known to be on the government's radar, have revealed that WhatsApp and Citizen Lab, a Canada-based cyber-security group, had warned them of the hacking over the last three weeks.

Citizen Lab is helping WhatsApp investigate Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, which has been accused of allegedly helping governments illegally hack into mobile devices. The company's spyware, Pegasus, installed through a missed call which then helps the attacker gain total access, was used to hack into the phones of around 1,400 users globally over two weeks in May.

Professor Anand Teltumbde, a vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was among those targeted.

"I got to know about it around 10 to 12 days back. I got a message from a senior researcher at Citizen Lab and he told me to be careful," Prof Teltumbde told The Straits Times.

He was told the spyware could control his phone's microphone and camera and was advised to change his phone and passwords. He had little doubt that the spying was by some government agency.

"I have not changed my phone. I have nothing to hide. I can say what I have to say from the rooftops. And if they can do it to one phone, they can do it to others... But yes, there is a danger (of information being put on the phone). That possibility can happen," he said.

Prof Teltumbde earlier this year was arrested by the police and accused of being behind a rally of Dalits, who are the lowest caste, that turned violent in Bhima Koregaon in the western state of Maharashtra on Jan 1 last year. He was also accused of having links with Maoist rebels.

Over a hundred academics and intellectuals, including world-renowned linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, had petitioned the United Nations to intervene to reverse the "fabricated charges" against the professor.

 
 
 
 

A handful of those targeted in the WhatsApp snooping are linked to the Bhima Koregaon case like Ms Shalini Gera, a lawyer for one of the accused.

Others include journalists, human rights lawyers and activists working on tribal, Dalit and environmental issues like Mr Vivek Sundara, a part of the anti-nuclear movement.

He said he did not take the initial calls from Citizen Lab seriously.

"I ignored it and kept it to myself. I didn't look at it seriously till two days ago. I can't say I'm a high-profile target. But I have been active in different ways... trying to spread awareness about human rights, environmental, and Dalit issues," said Mr Sundara.

"We thought WhatsApp was safe. There is nothing that can't be hacked. Where is the privacy?" he added.

Opposition leaders and critics accused the Modi government of being caught snooping, a charge dismissed by officials.

"Attempts to malign the Government of India for the reported breach, are completely misleading," said the Home Ministry in a statement.

Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Twitter that the government was concerned about the breach and "is committed to protecting the privacy of all Indian citizens".

Still, privacy advocates noted that the episode has thrown up disturbing privacy issues.

"This raises some extremely disturbing questions about likely illegal hacking by unknown government agencies - or other actors operating in India - and suggests flagrant disregard for the rule of law and contempt for our fundamental right to privacy," said the Internet Freedom Foundation, an Indian digital liberties organisation.