On the day The Indian Express reported that WhatsApp had confirmed that Indian journalists and human rights activists were among targets of surveillance by operators using Israeli spyware Pegasus to take over phones via WhatsApp, the government, expressing concern over the “breach of privacy of citizens of India”, asked the Facebook-owned messaging platform to “explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens”. It also warned of strict action against those found violating the law of the land.
In a statement, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister for Law and Justice, Communications, Electronics & Information Technology, said: “Government of India is committed to protecting privacy of all Indian citizens. Government agencies have a well established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central and state governments, for clear stated reasons in national interest.”
Responding to this, a WhatsApp spokesperson said: “We agree with the Government of India’s strong statement about the need to safeguard the privacy of all Indian citizens. That is why we have taken this strong action to hold cyber attackers accountable and why WhatsApp is so committed to the protection of all user messages through the product we provide.”
Prasad also took a swipe at the Congress which targeted the government over WhatsApp’s disclosure: “Those trying to make political capital out of it need to be gently reminded about the bugging incident in the office of the then eminent Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee during UPA regime. Also a gentle reminder of the spying over the then Army Chief Gen. V K Singh. These are instances of breach of privacy of highly reputed individuals, for personal whims and fancies of a family.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs, in a statement, said “attempts to malign the Government of India for the reported breach are completely misleading”. Underlining that the “Government of India is committed to protect the fundamental rights of Indian citizens, including the right to privacy” and that it “operates strictly as per provisions of law and laid down protocols”, the MHA said: “There are adequate safeguards to ensure that no innocent citizen is harassed or his privacy breached. Strict action will be taken against those who are found guilty of violating any provision of law.”
Meanwhile, in response to an RTI application dated October 23 by one Saurav Das who asked the MHA whether the government had purchased or given a purchase order for the Pegasus spyware, the Ministry’s Cyber and Information Security Thursday stated that “no such information is available with the undersigned CPIO (Central Public Information Officer)”.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, said the panel will take up the surveillance matter and seek clarifications from the government.
“I am extremely concerned about this development and am sure the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology would share my concerns… I intend to consult other members by email on the matter. In any case, cybersecurity is a major issue on our agenda and we are definitely going to take this up under that rubric. Of course, we will be seeking clarifications from the government,” he said.
Explained | What is spyware Pegasus?
“While the WhatsApp-NSO issue has emerged in the open, it is important to ensure that no other social media platform can be similarly used, and we will seek to learn how exactly the government can ensure that. It is vital that as a democracy, India remain vigilant about the risk of our freedoms being eroded by technological means. We must not, at any price, become a surveillance state like China,” Tharoor said.
His party went on the offensive, seeking answers from the government. In a press release, Randeep Singh Surjewala, AICC communications in-charge, said “instead of digressing from the issue of illegal, unconstitutional and unauthorized surveillance of citizens of India by asking WhatsApp to explain”, the government and the minister must explain who “purchased and deployed” the spyware, who authorised it and what action will be taken. He also urged the Supreme Court to take suo motu cognizance and “conduct a court-monitored inquiry”.