In a big revelation, WhatsApp has stated that Indian journalists and human rights activists were targets of a surveillance campaign in the run-up to the 2019 General Elections. The Indian Express reports on its front-page today that the campaign was mounted using Israeli spyware Pegasus. “The disclosure follows a lawsuit filed Tuesday in a US federal court in San Francisco in which WhatsApp alleged that the Israeli NSO Group targeted some 1,400 WhatsApp users with Pegasus,” the report notes.
WhatsApp has declined to reveal the identities and the exact number of people who were targeted. However, the Facebook-owned platform has reached out to those who were targeted: this includes two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists and journalists. A spokesperson told The Indian Express: “Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number.”
The Washington Post reports that WhatsApp has alleged that the Israeli surveillance company NSO, which makes Pegasus, helped government agencies “deliver malicious software through seemingly harmless WhatsApp video calls, even if the targets never answered their phones”. It further notes that once installed, the malware can take over the phone and intercept “communications, steal photos and other forms of data, activate microphones and cameras, track the locations of targets and more…”. The Post notes that Pegasus was implicated in spying on its contributing writer Jamal Khashoggi before he was killed by people affiliated with Saudi Arabia’s security services last year.
Suggested reading on the issue:
The Wired has a piece on why WhatsApp’s case against NSO hinges on a tricky legal argument.
The Financial Times has the inside story on how an Israeli technology was used to spy.