WhatsApp's privacy has been brought into questioning after it admitted to a breach in its platform. The world's largest messaging platform with over 1.5 billion users worldwide is suing NSO Group, an Israeli firm which developed Pegasus to conduct cyber-espionage. WhatsApp further confirmed that Indian journalists and human rights activists were also targeted for surveillance, which has provoked a response from the government.
Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, in a series of tweets on Thursday, asked WhatsApp to explain the breach of privacy. Prasad also took a jab at the opposition for pointing fingers at the government.
Here's the full text of Prasad's response on the startling revelation made by WhatsApp:
"Government of India is concerned at the breach of privacy of citizens of India on the messaging platform WhatsApp. We have asked WhatsApp to explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens.
Government is committed to protecting privacy of all Indian citizens. Government agencies have a well-established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central & state governments, for clear stated reasons in national interest.
Those trying to make political capital out of it need to be gently reminded about the bugging incident in the office of the then eminent Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee during UPA regime. Also a gentle reminder of the spying over the then Army Chief Gen. V. K. Singh.
These are instances of breach of privacy of highly reputed individuals, for personal whims and fancies of a family."
WhatsApp hasn't revealed the identity of those targeted for surveillance in India, but the company spokesperson said the number is not "insignificant." WhatsApp is suing NSO Group, which reportedly provided unnamed entities with the means to hack into the phones of roughly 1,400 users. At least two dozen journalists, academics, lawyers, human rights activists and Dalit activists were alerted by WhatsApp that they had been under surveillance.
While the NSO Group has disputed WhatsApp's allegations, the Israeli firm insisted that its technology is "not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists." In November last year, fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden said the spyware built by NSO Group was used in tracking murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The firm cut ties with Saudi Arabia after the news Khashoggi broke.
What is Pegasus and what can it do?
Pegasus is NSO Group's flagship product, which has the ability to alter a phone's camera, microphone, and can collect other information as well. NSO touts its Pegasus as the product for governments to fight against terrorism and crime.
WhatsApp's lawsuit described the spyware's extensive capabilities, where even a missed call to the targeted phone can breach the security of the app, which is protected by end-to-end 256-bit encryption. Pegasus can be installed on any phone if the user clicks on a link created by the operator. No further permissions would be needed from the user's end after the link is clicked. The spyware would be able to retrieve all the sensitive information, including passwords, texts, contacts, even listen to live calls from popular messaging apps. The spyware renders WhatsApp's security useless.