Surveillance via WhatsApp: Rights lawyers to activists, DU prof to scribes on snoop list

By: and |
Updated: November 1, 2019 11:48:40 AM

Among over two dozen users whose phones have been targeted by operators using Pegasus spyware.

whatsapp, whatsapp surveillanceIn the latest vulnerability, it is alleged that operators penetrated smartphones through missed video calls.

Rights activists and lawyers working in tribal areas, a Dalit activist, journalists repor-ting on defence and strategy and a Delhi University lecturer are among over two dozen users whose phones, according to Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging platform, have been targets of surveillance by operators using Israeli spyware Pegasus.

On Thursday, The Indian Express reported that WhatsApp, which sued Pegasus-developer NSO Group in a US federal court on Tuesday, confirmed it was aware that journalists and human rights activists in India were targeted for surveillance and it had contacted each one of them. In the latest vulnerability, it is alleged that operators penetrated smartphones through missed video calls.

On Friday, The Indian Express spoke to 17 of those targeted:

* Ravindranath Bhalla, advocate in the High Court Of Telangana, and general-secretary, Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana chapter): “On October 7, Citizen Lab messaged me, telling me how they worked on tracking Internet threats against civil society. I ignored it… Then after I got an official message from WhatsApp I responded and reached out to him (Citizen Lab person)… I have only just fully understood the implications of what has been going on.”

*Shalini Gera, Bastar-based lawyer for jailed activist Sudha Bhardwaj and co-founder of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group: “I was getting repeated video calls from a Swedish number, which would disappear.” She became aware of her phone being targeted when Citizen Lab reached out a fortnight ago and told her about Pegasus being used by an operator. She was told that betw-een February and May 2019, her phone was listened into, and possibly mirrored. WhatsApp contacted her and sent her a message on October 29, advising her to take precautions.

*Bela Somari/Bhatia, Bastar-based human rights lawyer and activist: “This was in late September. Citizen’s Lab of the University of Toronto contacted me… They said WhatsApp had contacted them and they do this kind of protection work for civilians. WhatsApp had given them a list of people… They said they work on this technology and right now they seem to have curbed it… nevertheless you need to be alert and change your phone… A couple of times, there were these calls that I did not pick up… On October 29, WhatsApp sent a message informing me of what has happened.”

* Nihal Singh Rathod, Nagpur-based lawyer who is also junior to lawyer-activist Surendra Gadling, arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case: “I was getting missed video calls via WhatsApp continuously. I changed my phone in January 2019. I raised a complaint with WhatsApp on March 28. The missed video calls soon stopped. I got a call from Citizen Lab on October 7 and then on October 14. Their researcher told me about specific threats from someone using Pegasus to do surveillance. They disclosed this specifically to me on October 14.”

* Jagdish Meshram, Gadchiroli-based lawyer, member of the Indian Association of Peoples Lawyers: “I received several international video calls between March and May this year. Sometimes one in two-four days and sometimes twice a day. I must have received 20-odd such calls during the period. Whenever I world try to take the call, it would get disconnected. Today, when I came to know about the Israeli spyware Pegasus, I suspect I may have been targeted too.”

* Ankit Grewal: Chandigarh-based human rights lawyer and Joint Secretary, Indian Association of Peoples Lawyers: “It began after March 2019 and continued till May. At least, 8 missed calls (video) were received from foreign numbers. I have been closely associated with Sudha Bharadwaj in different capacities. I was the petitioner who filed a habeas corpus before the Punjab and Haryana High Court when she was arrested in October 2018.”

* Vivek Sundara: Mumbai-based civil and environmental rights activist: “I probably had a couple of missed calls from numbers that seem very strange. The institute in Toronto has been sending me WhatsApp messages, warning me about these things… I just deleted everything, thinking what is all this. I spoke to some friends and it has turned out to be true.”

* Anand Teltumbde: Civil rights and Dalit rights activist and scholar. Senior professor at the Goa Institute of Management. Was arrested for alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case: “The same person, the senior researcher at the University of Toronto, that contacted everyone else, contacted me. This was about 10 days ago. I am a bit cautious now, I don’t respond. A message came that he wanted to talk to me. So I have a friend in the university in Toronto. I called them, and he confirmed the identity of the person… Message from WhatsApp confirming this came on the 29th or the 30th. What is left to be said.”

* Degree Chouhan Prasad, Chhattisgarh-based tribal, Dalit and human rights activist. Part of the Chhattisgarh chapter of PUCL: “I first saw some unusual activity in my email account after I got an email… I got suspicious and did not open it. The institute in Canada then reached out to me a day later which I also initially ignored. But then someone from the institute sent me a video message which I heard and then spoke to the person… On October 29, I got a message from WhatsApp stating what had taken place and the steps I should take.”

* Seema Azad, human rights activist, associated with PUCL, brings out a Hindi magazine from Allahabad, Dastak Naye Samay Ki: “WhatsApp did message me… advised me to update the App. But I was busy and thought it was a routine message, so I disregarded it.”

* Dr Saroj Giri, Lecturer in Political Science, Delhi University: “Citizen Lab contacted me a month-and-half back. I had no idea who they were, but when I researched them, I realised it was serious. WhatsApp contacted me much later, and I was told they would send me a report on suspicious activities on my phone a week later, and they did send it to me. Then I got the specific WhatsApp message on October 29.”

* Amar Singh Chahal: Chandigarh-based human rights lawyer and member of Lawyers for Human Rights International: “I am not aware of this.”

* Rajeev Sharma, Delhi-based independent columnist and strategic affairs analyst: “I got a WhatsApp message at 9.36 pm on October 29, saying that my phone may have been at risk. The first call I got was from the Canada-based NGO 15-20 days ago… I was advised to change my phone.”

* Shubhranshu Chaudhary, formerly with BBC World Service, now does ‘peace journalism’ in Chhattisgarh, used to run CG Net/Swara and now ‘Bultu’ Radio (or Bluetooth radio) amongst Adivasis: “A few months ago, I got a call asking me ‘Who are you’, so I asked, ‘Who are you?’ They asked if I had seen some strange activities on my phone, I recalled I had, of material disappearing sometimes. I was then told I was on a ‘list’. They asked me if I would cooperate while they repaired the flaw. I agreed and have been in touch since, and going through digital security protocols and learning how to be more secure.”

* Santosh Bharatiya, Delhi-based journalist, editor-in-chief of online news portal Chauthi Duniya, former Janata Dal MP: “I did get texts from Citizen Lab and WhatsApp but I did not make much of it till I looked again just now. They had alerted me to a ‘specific cyber risk that we believe that you faced earlier this year’.”

* Ashish Gupta, Delhi-based journalist who heads the Asomiya Pratidin bureau, a civil rights activist with Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation: “I am a journalist and a human rights activist. I got a call from Canada’s Citizen Lab, an NGO, in early October… I was told by the Canada NGO about WhatsApp and advised some basic precautions. On July 5, a very odd thing happened. I found myself removed from all WhatsApp groups without my taking any action.”

* Sidhant Sibal, Delhi-based journalist. Principal Diplomatic and Defence Correspondent with WIONews (WION): “I knew about the breach one month ago when WhatsApp via Citizen Lab contacted me and told me about the snooping and my phone having been targeted.”

(With Vivek Deshpande in Nagpur, Sofi Ehsan in Chandigarh and Sreenivas Janyala in Hyderabad)

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