The political controversy over the WhatsApp snooping row intensified today, with the Congress claiming that the phones of three opposition leaders — including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — were hacked by the government. Yesterday, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made a similar claim. The other leader who came forward, the Congress said, was Praful Patel, a former Union minister from Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party.
“When WhatsApp sent messages to all those whose phones were hacked, one such message was also received by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra,” senior Congress leader Randeep Surjewala told reporters this afternoon.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s team claimed she did not take the message seriously and had deleted it. Only when Mr Surjewala forwarded her the message from WhatsApp that was received by targeted users, she remembered she did receive one such message, sources said.
Last week, Facebook, the parent company of WhatsApp, alleged that Israeli cybersecurity company NSO used WhatsApp servers to spread spyware Pegasus.
Among the 1,400 users targeted across 20 nations were 121 Indian journalists, activists, lawyers and senior government officials, who were spied on for a two-week period in April before the national elections.
Facebook has sued NSO, which claimed that its products were licensed only to “vetted and legitimate government agencies”.
Claiming the BJP government has been “exposed”, the Congress levelled a series of questions today, demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi supply the answers. Dubbing BJP the “Bharatiya Jasoos Party”, Mr Surjewala said, the government was silent on the issue “despite knowing about it”.
“On September 12, the IT Minister met the Vice-President of Facebook, but he didn’t raise the hacking issue… there was a mysterious silence,” he said.
Accusing the government of lying, the Congress said WhatsApp had alerted the government about the government in May. So the government’s claim that they became aware of the issue on October 31, is not true, Mr Surjewala said.
Claiming the government know about the matter since April, he said, “Ravi Shankar Prasad has not once stated that the government was aware, there was not a single PIB press release on the issue”.
“What is more alarming is the scope of spyware infection, an interesting list,” Mr Surjewala said, naming a series of service providers including Bharti Airtel, Atria Convergence, Hathway Cable Internet, Star Broadband Services and the state-owned MTNL. The spyware, he said, had even infected the “National Internet Backbone”.
Mr Surjewala said in a report dated September 18, 2018, ‘Citizen Lab — an inter-disciplinary laboratory based at Toronto University’s Munk School of Global Affairs — had talked of abuse of the NSO group technology. “These uses have included apparent government customers of NSO Group abusing ‘Pegasus’ spyware to target civil society groups, human rights defenders, lawyers, politicians and journalists,” the report read.