WhatsApp spyware threat: Several Indian activists and journalists targets

Our Bureau Mumbai | Updated on October 31, 2019

File photo   -  Bloomberg

WhatsApp attributed the intrusion to an international technology company called NSO Group.

A number of activists and journalists in India have disclosed that their WhatsApp account was being snooped into as part of a surveillance campaign. The disclosures came after WhatsApp sued an Israeli-based company for planting a spyware called Pegasus aimed at snooping into conversations. 

Lawyers defending the human rights activists arrested under the controversial Bhima Koregaon case and some journalists covering politics in India were victims of this surveillance programme. 

While it is not established who authorised the surveillance, Congress turned the heat on the Modi Government. "Modi Govt caught snooping! Appalling but not Surprising! After all, BJP Govt- 1. Fought against our right to privacy. 2. Set up a multi crore Surveillance Structure until stopped by SC. SC must take immediate cognisance and issue notice to BJP government," Congress's chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said in a tweet.

In May, WhatsApp announced that it had detected and blocked a new kind of cyberattack involving a vulnerability in video-calling feature. A user would receive what appeared to be a video call, but this was not a normal call. After the phone rang, the attacker secretly transmitted malicious code in an effort to infect the victim’s phone with spyware. The person did not even have to answer the call.

Now, after months of investigation, WhatsApp attributed the intrusion to an international technology company called NSO Group.

NSO Group claims it sells its spyware strictly to government clients only, and all of its exports are undertaken in accordance with Israeli government export laws and oversight mechanisms. However, the number of cases in which their technology is used to target members of civil society continues to grow.

NSO Group / Q Cyber Technologies’ flagship spyware, which is usually branded as Pegasus but which may have other names (including Q Suite), is among some of the most sophisticated spyware available on the market and can infiltrate both iOS and Android devices. According to industry experts, spyware like Pegasus gets embedded into the phone’s operating system after which it gets access to data stored in the users’ phone. 

This comes even as the Government has been asking WhatsApp to enable message decryption aimed at allowing investigating agencies to get access to specific users. While WhatsApp has been fighting against such a move, the latest development could further weaken the Government’s stand on the same. 

“Democracies depend on strong independent journalism and civil society, and intentionally weakening security puts these institutions at risk. And we all want to protect our personal information and private conversations. That’s why we will continue to oppose calls from governments to weaken end-to-end encryption,” Will Cathcart , head of WhatsApp said in a post.

Whatsapp files a complaint in US federal court

WhatsApp has filed a complaint in a US federal court against the NSO Group but analysts said that in the absence of adequate data protection laws, Indian users may not be able to get protection against such data breaches soon.

According to, those who were targeted in India include Nihalsingh Rathoda human rights lawyer in Nagpur,  who represents several of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case; Bela Bhatia a human rights activist, based in Chhattisgarh’s troubled Bastar region; Degree Prasad Chouhan, a lawyer and activist who campaigns for the cultural and social rights of Dalits and Adivasis; Anand Teltumbde, professor, writer and civil rights activist; Sidhant Sibal

 principal diplomatic and defence correspondent for Wion TV channel; Shalini Gera, a human rights lawyer with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Rupali Jadhav from cultural group Kabir Kala Manch;  Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former TV and radio producer for BBC's South Asia bureau.

Published on October 31, 2019

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