Govt asks WhatsApp to explain breach

WhatsApp on Tuesday sued Israeli technology firm NSO Group, accusing it using the Facebook-owned messaging service to conduct cyberespionage on journalists, human rights activists and other. ( AFP)

A war of words broke out over revelations of spying by messaging platform WhatsApp with the Congress accusing the central agencies of spying on Supreme Court judges, opposition leaders, human rights activists and journalists, a charge rejected by the government.

Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala accused the Modi government of using the Pegasus surveillance software of the Israeli agency NSO to hack the phones of those critical of its policies and demanded that the Supreme Court take suo motu cognisance of the issue and order a court-monitored probe.

Surjewala laughed off IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s demand for WhatsApp to come clean on the breach of privacy of Indian citizens. He asked Prasad to explain which central agency had purchased and deployed Pegasus surveillance software from the Israeli company.

“Strategically, this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black,” Surjewala said asking Prasad to clarify whether it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi or National Security Adviser Ajit Doval who approved the purchase of the Pegasus software.

Surjewala accused the Modi government of doing “everything to crush the rights of citizens, including every dissenting voice.”

“The present BJP government opposed the “Right to Privacy’ to be read as part of the fundamental rights. It, in fact, argued that no Indian should have a ‘Right to Privacy’, until the Supreme Court overruled it,” the Congress leader said.

Former Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who is on a meditational visit abroad, sought to draw similarities between the snooping allegations involving WhatsApp with the Rafale deal.

Prasad hit back at the Congress, reminding it of the bugging of the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s office and the “spying” over the then Army chief Gen V K Singh.

The government is committed to protecting the fundamental rights of citizens, including the right to privacy, and will take strict action against any intermediary responsible for breach of privacy, they said.

Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in a statement that the government has asked WhatsApp to “explain the kind of breach” by November 4 and “what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions” of Indians.

“Government agencies have a well-established protocol for an interception which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central and state governments for clearly stated reasons in the national interest,” it said.

WhatsApp said it had, in May, stopped a highly sophisticated cyberattack that exploited its video-calling system to send malware to users, but refused to divulge the exact number of those targeted in India.

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