Adding fresh fuel to the controversy triggered by WhatsApp’s admission that journalists and human rights activists in India who are its users had been targets of surveillance by operators using Israeli spyware Pegasus, the Congress claimed on Sunday that AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s phone too had been hacked.
“WhatsApp supposedly sent messages to different people whose phones were hacked. One such message was also received from WhatsApp on the telephone of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra,” Congress communications department head Randeep Surjewala said. He said Priyanka received the message during the same duration as the others.
“When WhatsApp was sending messages to others, she received a similar message. WhatsApp did not say that the phone was hacked in this fashion by illegal Pegasus software. The nature of the message is already available in public domain and she received a similar message,” he said.
Layers of BJP Govt’s conspiracy & collusion in the illegal & unconstitutional hacking of cell phones through surveillance software ‘Pegasus’ are unraveling everyday.
BJP Govt is the deployer & executor of this illegal & unconstitutional snooping & spying racket.
Our Statement: pic.twitter.com/p5qbffgayC
— Randeep Singh Surjewala (@rssurjewala) November 3, 2019
Sources familiar with the developments, however, said there were no politicians in the list of 121 Indian individuals affected by the hacking which was shared by WhatsApp with the Indian government.
While neither confirming nor denying Congress claims, a WhatsApp spokesperson said, “WhatsApp cares deeply about the privacy and security of our users. We have already contacted the users directly we have reason to believe were targeted. Users can contact us within the app and we will respond directly.”
Talking to The Indian Express, Surjewala did not rule out the possibility of other Congress leaders having received a similar message. “Priyankaji told me that she received a message. Other leaders have not told me,” he said. Sources in the Congress said the party will raise the issue in a big way in Parliament when it reopens for Winter Session later this month.
The BJP hit back immediately, questioning the credibility of the Congress claim. “Haven’t we seen the Congress imagining things that don’t exist? Remember them claiming that Rahul Gandhi’s life was in danger when a green light, off a video camera, flashed on his face during a media briefing. Well, that is the level of their leaders’ credibility in public life,” BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya said.
The Congress claim came a day after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said her phone was tapped and asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to investigate the matter. There were reports earlier that senior NCP leader Praful Patel too had received a message from WhatsApp informing him about the breach.
The Congress held a press conference on Sunday after The Sunday Express reported that WhatsApp, besides notifying the government in May about a vulnerability in its service, sent a letter in early September informing it that 121 Indians were compromised by Pegasus. The report said that both WhatsApp’s vulnerability note of May and the September letter were sent to the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), the nodal agency within the IT Ministry to deal with cyber security threats.
Surjewala said Pegasus was used “to hack cellphones in the run-up to the 2019 general elections to Parliament” and “the BJP government was fully aware” of it and yet “kept mum”.
Congress leader Anand Sharma, who chairs the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs, said the issue will be taken up at the panel’s next meeting on November 15, where the Home Secretary is scheduled to give a briefing on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. “This issue will also be discussed and we will seek details from the secretary,” Sharma said.
Earlier, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who heads the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, had said the panel will be seeking clarifications from the government.