Digital espionage and India

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Millions of users across the world who trusted WhatsApp’s claim of being a secure, end-to-end encrypted communication platform are in shock after revelations that it is susceptible to compromise and has, in fact, been used by third parties to snoop on people in many countries through spyware. While this raises questions over invasion of privacy, a bigger danger is the misuse of the snooping software by governments to illegally spy on dissenters and detractors, thereby hitting at the very foundation of democracy. WhatsApp has confirmed in a lawsuit in the US that Pegasus, a technology developed by Israeli firm NSO was used to conduct cyber espionage on some 1,400 people across the world, including over two dozen human rights activists, lawyers and journalists in India.

The software can read not only the entire content off the phone, but also operate its camera without the user’s knowledge. Though conclusive evidence is yet to emerge, a perusal of the list of Indians who were spied on indicates that the government alone and nobody else would be interested in listening to the conversations of these individuals, especially since the snooping took place on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. NSO has also said it sells the Pegasus software only to governments.  Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s response to the revelations has been far from convincing, which only strengthens doubts that the government was always in the know of things. Instead of ordering an inquiry into NSO and the illegal invasion of phones in the country, the minister has asked WhatsApp to explain “the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of citizens.” India has a protocol when it comes to phone-tapping, which requires sanction from top officers, but the use of spyware is definitely not one among them. The episode leads to many questions: Did the government procure the technology from NSO officially or unofficially and put it to use illegally? Was it purchased by some rogue officers in intelligence or enforcement agencies? Did the government authorise any external agency to execute the job?

The deployment of Pegasus has been established beyond doubt and what needs to be answered now is, who did it and under whose orders. At this point in time, the needle of suspicion points to the government because only it would benefit from the information gathered through such snooping. Instead of holding a gun to WhatsApp, the authorities should come clean on the whole issue. Until then, the charge of unlawfully spying on its own citizens, especially known dissenters, will stick to the Narendra Modi government. WhatsApp’s biggest market with 400 million users, has asked the Facebook-owned (FB.O) company to explain the nature of a privacy breach on its messaging platform that has affected some users, Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said. The surveillance revelations come after the messaging platform sued Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group on Tuesday, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users across four continents including diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and government officials. The development is not in the right direction.

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