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Activists hit by WhatsApp snooping write to govt, ask if public money was spent on Pegasus

In open letter, 19 activists & lawyers demand to know if there was any contract between govt & NSO Group to ‘deploy’ Pegasus spyware in India.

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New Delhi: A group of 19 activists and lawyers Friday wrote an open letter to the Narendra Modi government, claiming that they were targeted by the controversial surveillance software Pegasus — a product of the Israel-based NSO Group — and demanded to know if tax-payers’ money was used on this kind of cyber-surveillance.

“We, the undersigned, have all received messages from WhatsApp Inc. over the last fortnight, informing us that our mobile devices were the target by a highly sophisticated cyberattack,” the letter read.

“WhatsApp attributes this attack to a malicious spyware called Pegasus, which is the flagship product of the Israeli based NSO group and its parent company Q Cyber Technologies,” it said.

Some of the signatories are Dalit activist Vira Sathidar, lawyer Nihal Singh Rathod, who works with Human Rights Law Network, PhD scholar Ajmal Khan, activists Bela Bhatia and Seema Azad, and human rights lawyers Jagdish Meshram, Ankit Grewal and Shaline Gera, among others.

Calling the surveillance “deeply disturbing”, they said it not just violated their privacy, but that of their friends, family and colleagues too.

“This violates our fundamental right of privacy, and compromises not only our security, but also of those in our extended network of family, friends, colleagues, clients, sources etc,” the letter said.

Also read: Vikas and Pegasus together, as joblessness hovers above Statue of Unity

‘Put all information on cyber-surveillance in public domain’

The letter asked the Modi government to reveal whatever information they have on this cyberattack and demanded to know if tax-payers’ money was used for this purpose.

“As affected persons and concerned citizens, we appeal to the Government of India to reveal whatever information it has about this cyberattack, other similar methods of mass surveillance and the identity of the concerned players,” the letter said.

“It is a matter of public concern whether Indian tax-payer money has been spent on this kind of cyber-surveillance requiring the expenditure of crores of rupees and a vast infrastructure of information technology,” it added.

Last week, WhatsApp said Pegasus software was used to spy on Indian journalists and human rights activists. The revelation by WhatsApp created a stir, prompting the government to ask the instant messaging app to explain the breach.

The NSO Group had previously said it works only for “vetted and legitimate” government agencies, raising several eyebrows.

On Wednesday this week, Law and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said India takes its privacy seriously, and data imperialism will not be acceptable.

Letter asks govt to apprise people of the steps it’s taking

The letter also asked the government if it was aware of any “contract between any of its various ministries, departments, agencies, or any State Government, and the NSO group or any of its contractors to deploy Pegasus or related malware for any operations within India.”

The letter demanded the government to place any such information they have about the surveillance, in the public domain.

“…the details of such a contract, including its total value and the contracting agencies should be placed in the public domain, including information regarding the monitoring and oversight to which these operations have been subjected in order to prevent their abuse,” it said.

It further appealed to the government to apprise the public of the steps it is taking to ensure that such cyberattacks do not recur.

“…the public should be fully informed of all the steps being taken to identify the culprits behind these cyber-attacks and to secure our telecommunication channels to prevent such an attack in the future.” 

Also read: The rise of Pegasus and why India should know the problem with hiring ‘internet mercenaries’


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