NEW DELHI — Mahua Moitra, Trinamool Congress MP from West Bengal, said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s statement on the WhatsApp hacking scandal made clear that the government was using the Pegasus spyware to snoop on phones of civilians.
Union minister Ravi Sankar Prasad said that the government has a ‘well established protocol’ for surveillance, which needed clearance from “high ranking officials” for “clear stated reasons in national interest”. Moitra said that the government’s stand was a “barefaced falsehood”.
Moitra has filed several petitions in the Supreme Court against the government’s efforts to put civilians under surveillance. Last year, she moved court against the home ministry’s decision to allow 10 government agencies to snoop on the computers on citizens.
The case is still pending in the court.
“Meanwhile, they are doing whatever they feel like doing,” Moitra said.
HuffPost India had reported that a client agreement with the Ghana government submitted by Facebook to the court made it clear that there were only two possible parties which could have purchased NSO’s spyware: the Indian government or a foreign government to snoop on Indian individuals.
Moitra said she would not blame WhatsApp entirely for the fiasco. The snooping came to light when Facebook, Whatsapp’s parent company, filed a suit in a California court against the NSO group, the company that makes Pegasus, for exploiting a vulnerability in Whatsapp’s architecture.
“My issue is not with WhatsApp. Why has this happened? This was possible because India doesn’t have proper data protection laws. This has happened because of parliamentary oversight. This has happened because of judicial oversight,” she said.
While the government keeps citing ‘national security’ as a defence for their surveillance, Moitra said that the hacking scandal and the government’s wobbly defence is a clear indicator that ‘every institution is breaking down’ in its regime.
The names that surfaced following WhatsApp’s revelations that activists, lawyers and academics were attacked using the Pegasus spyware were almost exclusively associated with the Bhima Koregaon incident. Several activists have pointed out that academics like Shoma Sen and Sudha Bharadwaj have been jailed for over two years even as the police has struggled to present conclusive evidence of wrongdoing. Activists like Kavita Krishnan pointed
Nagpur-based lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod, who represents several of the accused, including Dalit lawyer Surendra Gadling, said that the WhatsApp hack suggests that ‘evidence’ may have been planted on the computers of the accused. The police jailed many of the accused on the ground that they had discovered incriminating correspondence on their computers.
Moitra said that this was merely a tip of the iceberg. “Only a few names have surfaced. But considering the efforts they have made in the past to snoop on people, this is a very small section of the actual extent of their surveillance,” Moitra said.
“Basically anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their ideology, will need to be put under surveillance by them,” she added.