Messaging App, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in a US federal court in San Francisco in which the company alleged that the Israeli NSO Group targeted (for snooping) some 1,400 WhatsApp users with Pegasus.
While WhatsApp declined to reveal the identities and “exact number” of those targeted for surveillance in India, it is said that the humanrights activists and journalists were targeted for snooping. It is learnt that at least two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists and journalists in India were contacted and alerted by WhatsApp that their phones had been under state-of-the-art surveillance for a two-week period until May 2019.
As complaints about hacking of WhatsApp data by Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli firm NSO Group spiralled on Thursday, the Central government swung into action to "protect people's right to privacy."
There was also a political firestorm after the revelation that about two dozen journalists, activists and lawyers in India had been targeted.
Globally, 1,400 was the number of such users, also including diplomats, political dissidents as well as senior government officials. But some analysts alleged that the breach was not limited to WhatsApp data alone.
Human rights activist Bela Bhatia and Nihal Singh Rathod -a lawyer involved with the Bhima Koregaon case - have confirmed receiving alert by WhatsApp that their phones had been under state-of-the-art surveillance for a two-week period until May 2019, media reports said.
The other eight are Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Dalit rights activist Degree Prasad Chauhan, academic Anand Teltumbde, Shubhranshu Choudhary from Chhattisgarh, People's Union for Democratic Rights member Ashish Gupta from Delhi, Delhi University assistant professor Saroj Giri, journalist Sidhant Sibal and freelance journalist Rajeev Sharma, reports said.
WhatsApp declined to name those who were targeted, but it said that they contacted each one of them and told them about the breach.
The Centre has asked WhatsApp to respond by November 4. "The government is concerned. We have asked WhatsApp to explain the breach and what it is doing to safeguard privacy of millions of Indians. The government is committed to protecting the privacy of all Indians," said Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union IT Minister.
"Government agencies have a well-established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials of Central and state governments, for clearly stated reasons in national interest," Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) however said, "Some statements have appeared based on reports in media regarding breach of privacy of Indian citizens on WhatsApp. These attempts to malign the government of India are completely misleading."
"Government of India is committed to protecting the fundamental rights of citizen, including the right to privacy and strict action against will follow if any intermediary is responsible for breach of privacy," the MHA said.
"It is clarified that the government of India operates strictly as per provisions of law and laid down protocols. There are adequate safeguards to ensure that no innocent citizen is harassed or his privacy breached."