WhatsApp sent second alert in September, informed 121 Indians may have been targeted
WhatsApp informed the government in September that 121 Indian citizens may have been targeted by an Israeli company’s spyware, an official at the mobile messaging services company said, detailing what was a second alert over a possible snooping attempt that came to light earlier in the week.
The official, who asked not to be named, said the company had responded to the ministry of electronics and information technology’s calls for an explanation over the kind of breach and what steps it had taken to protect users.
The two alerts – one in May and the September communication – were reiterated in the response, which was sent ahead of the November 4 deadline set by the government, this person said, asking not to be named.
Several human rights activists, lawyers and journalists in India came forward on Thursday to say that they had been identified as targets of a phone hack that was allegedly carried out through the popularly used messaging application by Israel-based NSO Group. WhatsApp on Wednesday sued the company and said it spied on around 1,400 people across the world using its Pegasus spyware – allegation that NSO Group denied.
The May alert was part of a formal vulnerability disclosure that was made globally by WhatsApp, while the September communication was more specific to Indians who may have been targets.
Late on Friday, WhatsApp, in a statement, spoke about the May communication. “In May, we quickly resolved a security issue and notified relevant Indian and international government authorities. Since then we’ve worked to identify targeted users to ask the courts to hold the international spyware firm known as the NSO Group accountable,” it said.
The 121 individuals purportedly affected were certainly under threat, but it remains unclear how many of them were the victims of a successful hacking, the official quoted above said.
Government officials did not respond to requests for information on how the alerts were processed.
Ministers and opposition political leaders, however, were locked in a war of words on Saturday over the controversy.
Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi on Saturday said the controversy exposed a surveillance attempt that was not only “illegal and unconstitutional” but also “shameful”.
“The latest shocking revelation that through the Israeli Pegasus software acquired by the Modi government, snooping and spying activities on activists, journalists and political persons have taken place. These activities are not only illegal and unconstitutional, they are shameful,” she said at a meeting of party general secretaries, state in-charges and office bearers in Delhi.
Hitting back, BJP working president JP Nadda on Saturday said Gandhi could “enlighten the nation about who at 10 Janpath authorised snooping on Shri Pranab Mukherjee when he was a minister in UPA & Gen VK Singh when he was the Army Chief”.
The government also came under attack from Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who said, “Yes, I know the government is using this Israeli NSO to watch activities of politicians, the media, lawyers, even judges, and IAS, IPS officers, social activists along with other important personalities”.