WhatsApp snooping row: A curious tale of shooting the messenger and murky regulations

Discussing the controversy involving Pegasus software used to tap phones of some activists, senior journalist Mrinal Pande says it’s high time laws are enacted against such brazen invasion of privacy

Rahul Gul

A huge row erupted when it came to light last week that a sophisticated software had been planted on cell phones belonging to several activists and their lawyers in India to snoop on them. This came in the wake of news that popular phone application WhatsApp, owned by Facebook Inc, had sued Israel-based cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group Technologies messenger in the US for using it as a gateway to infiltrate target cell phones.

The software, named Pegasus, developed by NSO Group Technologies, costs millions of dollars, and is made available, by all accounts, only to governments.

Though the needle of suspicion points towards it, the Government of India has yet to officially deny its involvement in the phone tapping, probably because of the pending lawsuit in the US whose findings may go against such a denial at this point of time. It instead has demanded a report from WhatsApp itself, though the latter has revealed that it submitted two reports, in May and September earlier this year, warning the government of the snooping.

Meanwhile, the Congress has alleged that its General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s phone was also targeted, which raises the possibility that the cell phones of other Opposition leaders may also have been similarly tapped.

The controversy has once again put the spotlight on the absence of effective laws to ensure data privacy and prevent phone tapping by the government in this country. While in the US, the government must take permission from a judge before tapping anyone’s phone, there’s no such effective regulatory oversight mechanisms in place here.

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