Updated: November 1, 2019 3:16:01 pm
Rights activists and lawyers working in tribal areas, an Elgar Parishad case accused, a Bhima Koregaon case lawyer, a Dalit activist, journalists reporting on defence and strategy and a Delhi University lecturer are among more than two dozen people in India whose phones have been alleged targets of surveillance by operators using Israeli spyware Pegasus via WhatsApp.
On Thursday, The Indian Express reported that Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which sued Pegasus-developer NSO Group in a US federal court Tuesday, confirmed it was aware that journalists and human rights activists in India were targeted for surveillance and it had contacted each one of them. In the latest vulnerability, it is alleged that operators penetrated smartphones through missed video calls to install the spyware.
Explained | What is spyware Pegasus?
A Reuters report from Washington said senior government officials in multiple US-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used WhatsApp to take over users’ phones.
The Indian Express spoke to 18 of those targeted in India:
Ravindranath Bhalla, advocate at Telangana High Court, and general secretary of Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana chapter): “On October 7, Citizen Lab (Canada-based cyber security group) messaged me, telling me how they worked on tracking Internet threats against civil society. I ignored it… After I got an official message from WhatsApp, I responded and reached out to (Citizen Lab)… I have only just fully understood the implications of what has been going on.”
Shalini Gera, Bastar-based lawyer for jailed activist Sudha Bhardwaj and co-founder of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group: “I was getting repeated video calls from a Swedish number which would disappear.” She became aware of her phone being targeted when Citizen Lab told her a fortnight ago about Pegasus being used by an operator. She was told that between February and May 2019, her phone was listened into, and possibly mirrored. WhatsApp contacted her and sent her a message on October 29, advising her to take precautions.
Anand Teltumbde, civil and Dalit rights activist and scholar. Professor at the Goa Institute of Management. Was arrested for alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad case and subsequently released: “The same person, the senior researcher at the University of Toronto, who contacted everyone else, contacted me. This was about ten days ago. I am a bit cautious now, I don’t respond. A message came that he wanted to talk to me. I have a friend in the university in Toronto. I called and he confirmed the identity of the person… Message from WhatsApp confirming this came on the 29th or the 30th. What is left to be said.”
Bela Somari/Bhatia, Bastar-based human rights lawyer and activist: “This was in late September. Citizen Lab contacted me… They said WhatsApp had contacted them and they do this kind of protection work for civilians. WhatsApp had given them a list of people… They said they work on this technology and right now they seem to have curbed it… nevertheless you need to be alert and change your phone… A couple of times, there were these calls that I did not take… On October 29, WhatsApp sent a message informing me of what had happened.”
Nihal Singh Rathod, Nagpur-based lawyer who is also junior to lawyer-activist Surendra Gadling, arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case: “I was getting missed video calls via WhatsApp continuously. I changed my phone in January 2019. I raised a complaint with WhatsApp on March 28. The missed video calls soon stopped. I got a call from Citizen Lab on October 7 and then on October 14. Their researcher told me about specific threats from someone using Pegasus to do surveillance. They disclosed this specifically to me on October 14.”
Jagdish Meshram, Gadchiroli-based lawyer, member of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers: “I received several international video calls between March and May this year. Sometimes one in two-four days and sometimes twice a day. I must have received 20-odd such calls during the period. Whenever I tried to take the call, it would get disconnected. Today, I came to know about the Israeli spyware Pegasus.”
Ankit Grewal, Chandigarh-based human rights lawyer and Joint Secretary, Indian Association of People’s Lawyers: “It began after March 2019 and continued till May. At least, 8 missed calls (video) were received from foreign numbers. I have been closely associated with Sudha Bharadwaj in different capacities. I was the petitioner who filed a habeas corpus before the Punjab and Haryana High Court when she was arrested.”
Vivek Sundara, Mumbai-based civil and environmental rights activist: “I probably had a couple of missed calls from numbers that seemed very strange. The institute in Toronto had been sending me WhatsApp messages, warning me about these things… I just deleted everything, thinking what can be all this. I spoke to some friends, and it has turned out to be true.”
Degree Prasad Chouhan, Chhattisgarh-based tribal, Dalit and human rights activist. From the Chhattisgarh chapter of PUCL: “I first saw some unusual activity in my email account after I got an email… I got suspicious and did not open it. The institute in Canada reached out to me a day later which I also initially ignored. But then someone from the institute sent me a video message which I heard and then spoke to the person… On October 29, I got a message from WhatsApp stating what had taken place and the steps I should take.”
Seema Azad, human rights activist, associated with PUCL, brings out a Hindi magazine from Allahabad, Dastak Naye Samay Ki: “WhatsApp did message me… advised me to update the app. But I was busy and thought it was a routine message, so I disregarded it.”
Dr Saroj Giri, Lecturer in Political Science, Delhi University: “Citizen Lab contacted me a month-and-half ago. I had no idea who they were, but when I researched, I realised it was serious. WhatsApp contacted me much later, and I was told they would send me a report on suspicious activities on my phone a week later, and they did send it to me. Then I got a specific WhatsApp message on October 29.”
Amar Singh Chahal, Chandigarh-based human rights lawyer and member of Lawyers for Human Rights International: “I am not aware of this.”
Rajeev Sharma, Delhi-based columnist and strategic affairs analyst: “I got a WhatsApp message at 9.36 pm on October 29, saying my phone may have been at risk. The first call I got was from the Canada-based NGO 15-20 days ago… I was advised to change my phone.”
Shubhranshu Chaudhary, formerly with BBC World Service, now does ‘peace journalism’ in Chhattisgarh, used to run CG Net/Swara and now ‘Bultu’ Radio (or Bluetooth radio) amongst Adivasis: “A few months ago, I got a call asking me ‘Who are you’, so I asked, ‘Who are you?’ They asked if I had seen some strange activities on my phone, I recalled I had, of material disappearing sometimes. I was then told I was on a ‘list’. They asked me if I would cooperate while they repaired the flaw. I agreed and have been in touch since, and going through digital security protocols and learning how to be more secure.”
Santosh Bharatiya, Delhi-based journalist, Editor-in-Chief of online news portal Chauthi Duniya, former Janata Dal MP: “I did get texts from Citizen Lab and WhatsApp but I did not make much of it till I looked again just now. They had alerted me to a ‘specific cyber risk that we believe that you faced earlier this year’.”
Ashish Gupta, Delhi-based journalist who heads the Asomiya Pratidin bureau, also a civil rights activist with Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation: “I am a journalist and a human rights activist. I got a call from Canada’s Citizen Lab in early October… I was told about WhatsApp and advised some basic precautions. On July 5, a very odd thing happened. I found myself removed from all WhatsApp groups without my taking any action.”
Sidhant Sibal, Delhi-based journalist. Principal Diplomatic and Defence Correspondent with WION: “I knew about the breach one month ago when WhatsApp via Citizen Lab contacted me and told me about the snooping and my phone having been targeted.”
Dr Ajmal Khan, Delhi-based civil rights activist and independent researcher with a doctorate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS): “I got a message from Citizen Lab a week ago which I ignored. Then WhatsApp sent me a message two days ago. I ignored that too… now I realise it was serious.”
(With Vivek Deshpande in Nagpur, Sofi Ahsan in Chandigarh and Sreenivas Janyala in Hyderabad)
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