At least 19 of the two dozen rights activists, lawyers, journalists, academics and students, who had been alerted by WhatsApp of their phones being hacked and put under surveillance by Israeli spyware Pegasus till May 2019, have written an open letter to the Indian government demanding answers.
“The knowledge that we have all been under surveillance by an unknown entity and that our intimate details, personal conversations, financial transactions etc. were being spied upon is deeply disturbing,” they said. “This violates our fundamental right of privacy, and compromises not only our security, but also of those in our extended network of family, friends, colleagues, clients, sources etc.”
“Indeed, such widespread surveillance produces a chilling effect on the entire society and goes against every grain of our democratic tradition of a free exchange of ideas and expressions,“ they added.
Appealing to the government to reveal information on the attack, they said it was a matter of public concern whether Indian taxpayer money had been spent on the cyber surveillance requiring the expenditure of crores of rupees and a vast infrastructure of information technology.
“The fact that international private corporations, among other foreign players, have penetrated all levels of our telecommunication channels, and have the ability to access the most intimate details of so many Indian citizens, threatens our national sovereignty,” they wrote.
The group sought an answer from the government about whether it was aware of any contract between its ministries or any state government with the NSO group. “If so, the details of such a contract, including its total value and the contracting agencies should be placed in the public domain, including information regarding the monitoring and oversight to which these operations have been subjected in order to prevent their abuse,” they wrote.
The letter was signed by Adv. Mandeep Ajmal Khan, Alok Shukla, Ankit Grewal, Asish Gupta, Ravindra Nath Balla, Bela Bhatia, Degree Prasad Chouhan, Devika Menon, Jagdish Meshram, NihalSing Rathod, Nikita Agarwal, Rupali Jadhav, Seema Azad, Shalini Gera, Shubhranshu Choudhary, Vidhya and Vira Sathidar.
The signatories have also asked the government to reveal what action has been taken in the case that it wasn’t aware of any breach. “… if indeed, the Government of India had no information of any such surveillance, then the public should be fully informed of all the steps being taken to identify the culprits behind these cyber-attacks and to secure our telecommunication channels to prevent such an attack in the future.”
In a report on November 1, The Indian Express had spoken to at least 18 people targeted by the spyware via WhatsApp.
In response to the Indian government, WhatsApp has confirmed that it informed authorities that at least 121 individuals were hacked in September. Meanwhile, NSO has refused to share details of its clients, and has said it works for only “vetted and legitimate” government agencies.
NSO was sued by Whatsapp in a US Court on October 29, but it denies any wrongdoing.
Indians are among 100 activists, lawyers and academicians worldwide to be targeted for surveillance using Pegasus. It was previously in the news after allegations were made of its deployment in the run up to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.