Left red-faced by snooping row, government asks WhatsApp to explain privacy breach

The Indian government on Thursday moved swiftly to counter the WhatsApp snooping row by seeking an explanation from the Facebook-owned messaging platform for privacy breach. Union Law & Justice, Communications, Electronics & Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad took to Twitter to post an extraordinary statement denying his government’s role in snooping using an Israeli company to snoop on journalists and activists, known to be critical of the government’s policies.

A statement by Prasad read, “Government of India is concerned at the breach of privacy of citizens of India on the messaging platform Whatsapp. We have asked Whatsapp to explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens.”

Prasad added, “The government is committed to protecting the 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.”

He also took a dig at the Congress for allegedly snooping on its finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, during the UPA government. He wrote, “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.”

His attack against the Congress came after the latter demanded immediate intervention by the Supreme Court since the top court had ruled in 2017 that privacy was a fundamental right. The apex court is currently also hearing a host of petitions on the government’s attempts to monitor WhatsApp messages.

The controversy gained momentum after it emerged that Israeli spyware was used to snoop on several Indian journalists and civil rights activists in April and May this year. The government is accused of using Israeli spyware Pegasus to compromise mobile phones of Indian journalists and activists critical of the government policies.

WhatsApp and its parent Facebook have sued the Israeli NSO Group, the manufacturer of the spyware, alleging that the Israeli company used malware to hack into the mobile phones of 1,400 people and conduct surveillance.

Usually, Pegasus sends a link to a user it intends to snoop on. Soon after the user clicks the link, his or her phone is comprised as the malware allows the hacking of phone calls, text messages and even the use of the camera to take live photos of locations that the user is visiting. However, on this occasion, Pegasus was believed to have targeted users by simply giving them missed calls.



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