The political controversy in India over the WhatsApp snooping row intensified yesterday, with the Congress claiming that the phones of three opposition leaders -- including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra -- were hacked by the government.
On Saturday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made a similar claim. The other leader who came forward, the Congress said, was Praful Patel, a former Union minister from Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party.
Indian media reports said 20 activists, lawyers and journalists were informed by WhatsApp recently that their phones were compromised for two weeks in May.
“When WhatsApp sent messages to all those whose phones were hacked, one such message was also received by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra,” senior Congress leader Randeep Surjewala told reporters yesterday afternoon.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s team claimed she did not take the message seriously and had deleted it. Only when Surjewala forwarded her the message from WhatsApp that was received by targeted users, she remembered she did receive one such message, sources said.
Last week, Facebook, the parent company of WhatsApp, alleged that Israeli cybersecurity company NSO used WhatsApp servers to spread spyware Pegasus.
Among the 1,400 users targeted across 20 nations were 121 Indian journalists, activists, lawyers and senior government officials, who were spied on for a two-week period in April before the national elections.
The Indian Express reported WhatsApp confirmed a number of Indian users had been targeted by the Pegasus spyware, which installed itself on their devices and relayed back data to the hackers.
New Delhi has asked WhatsApp to “explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens,” information and technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote on Twitter, denying the government had used the malware to spy on its citizens.
But opposition leaders accused the government of invading citizens’ privacy.
“A government that spies on journalists/activists/Opposition leaders and treats its own citizens like criminals has lost the right to lead in our democracy,” Surjewala said in a tweet on Friday.
Facebook has sued NSO, which claimed that its products were licensed only to “vetted and legitimate government agencies”.
Claiming the BJP government has been “exposed”, the Congress levelled a series of questions yesterday, demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi answer those.
Dubbing BJP the “Bharatiya Jasoos (spy) Party”, Surjewala said, the government was silent on the issue “despite knowing about it”.
“On September 12, the IT minister met the Vice-President of Facebook, but he didn’t raise the hacking issue... there was a mysterious silence,” he said.
Accusing the government of lying, the Congress said WhatsApp had alerted the government about this in May. So the government’s claim that they became aware of the issue on October 31, is not true, Surjewala said.
Rights activists and dissidents in India have accused the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government of intimidating them over their criticism of policies.
Since Modi’s ascent to the top post in 2014, it has banned hundreds of non government organisations and stopped funding of many more.
Rupali Jadhav, an activist, and one of those contacted by WhatsApp said she suspected that she was targeted for her work on caste, class and gender rights.
“We are told India is a democracy. But if our right to privacy is violated, doesn’t that raise questions?” AFP quoted her telling an Indian online outlet.