iPhone alert to MPs: Apple's reply on vulnerability not clear, says minister

Rajeev Chandrasekhar rejects allegations that govt is trying to transgress people's privacy or muzzle freedom of speech and expression

Representative image (photo: IANS)
Representative image (photo: IANS)


The government is still waiting for a clear reply from iPhone maker Apple on iPhone alerts sent to opposition political leaders around five months ago on alleged hacking of their devices by state-backed hackers.

In an interview with PTI, minister of state for electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar said the government has asked Apple two questions: whether their devices are safe, and if so, what was the reason for the alert sent to Opposition MPs.

"In my humble opinion, this is not something that any proprietary platform will completely concede whether they have vulnerabilities in their platform. There's an instinct in any platform to deny that vulnerability exists," he said. "We are asking a clear question, is your phone vulnerable? The answer to that is not totally unambiguous."

In October, several Opposition leaders claimed they had received an alert from Apple warning them of state-sponsored attackers trying to remotely compromise" their iPhones and alleged hacking by the government.

Among those who received the threat notification on their iPhones were Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, party leaders Shashi Tharoor, Pawan Khera, K.C. Venugopal, Supriya Shrinate, T.S. Singhdeo, and Bhupinder Hooda.

Former Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav were among others who received the notification, as were Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi, Aam Aadmi Party's Raghav Chadha, AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi and some aides of Congress MP Rahul Gandhi.

"Allegations when they were made, on that particular day we said very clearly this is for Apple to answer because it involves their device.

"We certainly have no R&D (research and development) capability in the government to understand what is in the iOS and what is not, and certainly Apple is not going to tell us its proprietary technology. So we called them," Chandrasekhar said.

He said CERT-In has made them party to the investigation. "They have given several clarifications, including on the same day that this has nothing to do with the state actor. But we pressed them further that if it has nothing to do with the state actor, then what is this notification? They have given us some clarification. They continue to... but CERT is continuing their investigation," the minister said.

An email query sent to Apple elicited no reply in this regard.

Chandrasekhar rejected allegations that the government is in any way trying to transgress the privacy of people or muzzle freedom of speech and expression. "We are absolutely clear that nothing we say in any rules, nothing we say in any law will ever transgress into or interfere with the fundamental rights of any of our citizens. As a matter of fact we support it," he said.

The government is fully committed to ensuring that internet is safe and trusted, the minister said. He said some people take the view that free speech is an absolute right and it has to be protected, which may be true for the US, but the Indian Constitution has reasonable restrictions on it.

"There are restrictions to it that you cannot say anything that is illegal, unlawful or against national security. There is a fundamental right to free speech. Fundamental right to free speech does not mean you have a fundamental right to lie, or provoke or create public order disturbances because you are inciting violence," the minister said.

There is a group of people who constantly allege censorship by the government, he said, adding that the government is fully focussed on protecting the fundamental rights of citizens.

"There are some bad guys and there are some good guys in this battle for free speech. If there is any good guy in this, it is us, the government of India. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi it is very clear... We are trustees to protect the fundamental right of every one of our citizens," the minister said.

He said allegations on government transgressing privacy or curtailing free speech are mostly politically driven. "When they have a doubt, and they can sit and discuss... they quickly get convinced that we are absolutely on the right track," the minister said.

In response to controversy around the PIB Fact Check unit, that flags misinformation or false information pertaining to the government, Chandrasekhar said the fact check unit is not any form of censorship but rather a tool to help platforms that are dealing with disputed government information.

"When the fact check unit says this is right or this is wrong, all platforms have to do is label it. Now there is nothing in that, that is censorship. But some people have characterised that, specifically Editors Guild, etc who are looking for a cause to hang their hat on," Chandrasekhar said.

The Editors' Guild of India has challenged the amendments to IT Rules 2021 in June, alleging that "amendments to the IT Rules will have deeply adverse implications for press freedom in the country".

The minister said the government wants to have a lesser role to be arbiter of disputes between consumers and the platforms. "We had a situation in 2021, with every dispute between a consumer and a social media platform getting referred to us. We want platforms to be accountable under law, to the consumers' grievances.

"We want consumers to have the process of going to an independent regulator or to the court to have their dispute with the platform sorted not to the government," the minister said.

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