WhatsApp told the government in September that 121 Indian users might have been hacked by an Israeli spyware firm, an official at the online messaging service provider said, explaining what was a second warning about a potential snooping effort which came to light earlier in the week.
The official, who asked not to be named, said the company had replied to requests from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to clarify the type of violation and what measures it had taken to protect users.
The two alerts – one in May and the communication in September – were reiterated in the response sent ahead of the government's November 4 deadline, this person said, asking not to be named.
Some human rights activists, lawyers and reporters in India came forward on Thursday to say that they had been named as targets for the mobile hack that was reportedly carried out by the popularly used NSO Group-based Israel messaging software.
The May alert was part of a larger disclosure of vulnerability made worldwide by WhatsApp, while the September contact was more limited to Indians who may have been targets.
Late on Friday, WhatsApp spoke of the May Communication in a statement. "In May, we quickly resolved the issue of security and notified the relevant Indian and international government authorities. Since then, we have been trying to find targeted clients and ask the courts to make the global spyware organization known as the NSO Group responsible, "he added.
Certainly the 121 persons allegedly affected were under threat, but it remains unclear how many of them were the victims of a successful hacking, said the official above.
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.
On Saturday, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi said the uproar revealed an attempt at surveillance that was not only "illegal and unconstitutional" but “shameful."
The government also came under attack from Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. “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”, said Mamata Banerjee to the Hindu.