In the wake of a lawsuit filed in the United States last week by Facebook against the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group Technologies, in which Facebook has accused NSO of using the former’s hugely popular instant messaging platform WhatsApp to conduct cyber espionage on nearly 1,400 journalists, diplomats, dissidents and human right activists worldwide, in India accusations are being made against government authorities. Specifically, critics have accused authorities of using NSO’s Pegasus spyware installed within WhatsApp to conduct surveillance on its own citizens via their use of their smartphones.
Among the critics, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) came out with a statement strongly condemning the hacking of the phones of activists, lawyers and journalists in India with NSO’s Pegasus spyware. According the CPI(M) “Any hacking of personal equipment such as a smart phone or a computer without due process is a violation of a person’s fundamental right to privacy as laid down by the Supreme Court. The use of the spyware such as Pegasus is equivalent to an illegal search and seizure of the data and information held privately by an individual. The owner of the Pegasus spyware, NSO, has declared that it only sells this software to government agencies, raising the suspicion that an agency of the government bought this software to target activists, journalists and lawyers.”
“The government needs to answer whether any of its agencies were involved in the use of this hacking software, particularly since most of the persons affected were targeted by the government in May last year. Under law, hacking people’s phones would constitute a cyber crime. If the government is not involved in the Pegasus software as it claims, why has it not started criminal investigations? While the Cyber & Information Security Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs has denied purchasing Pegasus, the government has yet to declare that no other department such as NTRO [the National Technical Research Organisation], CBI [the Central Bureau of Investigation] or RAW [the Research and Analysis Wing] has purchased it,” the CPI(M) statement said.
The CPI(M) has demanded that the government of India come clean on this issue and that it order a criminal investigation. The Party also demands the passing of a comprehensive data protection law, which safeguards the rights, and privacy of citizens.
The echo of the clandestine surveillance scandal is worldwide. Citing persons familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation, Reuters has reported that senior government and military officials from some 20 countries allied with the United States were targeted by NSO’s Pegasus spyware. According to the news agency, victims of the hacking campaign included persons in India as well as in the United States, Mexico, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.