Targets of the Whatsapp snoop: Rights lawyers, activists, professors, journalist

Facebook-owned WhatsApp acknowledged that it was mindful of the fact that Indian journalists and human rights activists were targeted for surveillance and that WhatsApp contacted each of them

Representative image
Representative image

NH Web Desk

The Indian Express revealed on Thursday that Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which sued Pegasus-developer NSO Group in a US federal court on Tuesday, acknowledged that it was mindful of the fact that Indian journalists and human rights activists were targeted for surveillance and that WhatsApp contacted each of them.

Rights activists and lawyers working in tribal regions, a Bhima Koregaon case attorney, a Dalit activist defence and strategy journalists and a Delhi University lecturer are among more than two dozen people in India whose mobile were apparently targeted for tracking users using Israeli Pegasus spyware through WhatsApp.

18 of those targeted in India spoke to The Indian Express.

“On October 7, Citizen Lab (Canada-based cybersecurity group) messaged me, telling me how they worked on tracking Internet threats against civil society. I ignored it… After I got an official message from WhatsApp, I responded and reached out to (Citizen Lab)… I have only just fully understood the implications of what has been going on,” said Ravindranath Bhalla, lawyer at Telangana High Court, and general secretary of Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners.

Shalini Gera, Sudha Bhardwaj’s lawyer, Co-founder of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group says “I was getting repeated video calls from a Swedish number which would disappear.” She became aware of her phone being targeted when Citizen Lab told her a fortnight ago about Pegasus being used by an operator. She was told that between February and May 2019, her phone was listened in to, and possibly mirrored. WhatsApp contacted her and sent her a message on October 29, advising her to take precautions.

“The same person, the senior researcher at the University of Toronto, who contacted everyone else, contacted me. This was about ten days ago. I am a bit cautious now, I don’t respond. A message came that he wanted to talk to me. I have a friend in the university in Toronto. I called 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,” said Anand Teltumbde, Dalit activist and scholar, professor; a suspect in the Elgar Parishad case, recently released.

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

“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 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,” Degree Prasad Chouhan, Chhattisgarh-based tribal, Dalit and human rights activist claims.

“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,” Seema Azad, human rights activist said.

“Citizen Lab contacted me a month-and-half ago. I had no idea who they were, but when I researched, 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 a specific WhatsApp message on October 29.” said Dr Saroj Giri, Lecturer in Political Science, Delhi University.

“I got a WhatsApp message at 9.36 pm on October 29, saying 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,” said Rajeev Sharma, Delhi-based columnist and strategic affairs analyst.

“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,” said Shubhranshu Chaudhary, ‘peace journalist’ in Chhattisgarh, amongst Adivasis.

“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,” said Santosh Bharatiya, Delhi-based journalist, Editor-in-Chief of online news portal Chauthi Duniya, former Janata Dal MP.

“I am a journalist and a human rights activist. I got a call from Canada’s Citizen Lab in early October… I was told 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,” Ashish Gupta, Delhi-based journalist who heads the Asomiya Pratidin bureau, also a civil rights activist with Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation said.

“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.” said Sidhant Sibal, Delhi-based journalist. Principal Diplomatic and Defence Correspondent with WION.

“I got a message from Citizen Lab a week ago which I ignored. Then WhatsApp sent me a message two days ago. I ignored that too… now I realise it was serious,” said Dr Ajmal Khan, Delhi-based civil rights activist and independent researcher with a doctorate from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

“This was in late September. Citizen Lab 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 take… On October 29, WhatsApp sent a message informing me of what had happened,” Bela Somari/Bhatia, Bastar-based human rights lawyer and activist said.

“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,” said Nihal Singh Rathod, junior to Surendra Gadling, arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.

“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 tried to take the call, it would get disconnected. Today, I came to know about the Israeli spyware Pegasus,” said Jagdish Meshram, Gadchiroli-based lawyer, member of the Indian Association of People’s 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,” said Ankit Grewal, Chandigarh-based human rights lawyer and Joint Secretary, Indian Association of People’s Lawyers.

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