Spyware attack via WhatsApp: Activists say they will move court

Among the individuals targeted in Maharashtra are lawyer Nihalsing Rathod, academic Anand Teltumbde, activist of the Kabir Kala Manch Rupali Jadhav, Dalit activist Vivek Sundara, former Ph.D student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences Ajmal Khan, human rights lawyer Jagdish Meshram, and Dalit activist Veera Sathidar, who also acted in the film Court.

Updated - November 28, 2021 11:18 am IST

Published - October 31, 2019 10:41 pm IST - Mumbai

Rupali Jadhav of Kabir Kaala Manch. Photo: Special Arrangement

Rupali Jadhav of Kabir Kaala Manch. Photo: Special Arrangement

The spyware attack on WhatsApp users targeted over a dozen civil rights activists, lawyers and journalists in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Goa.

The activists connected to the Bhima-Koregaon and Elgar Parishad cases said they would be approaching the court for action, while the Nationalist Congress Party demanded that Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari institute a probe. Among the individuals targeted in Maharashtra are lawyer Nihalsing Rathod, academic Anand Teltumbde, activist of the Kabir Kala Manch Rupali Jadhav, Dalit activist Vivek Sundara, former Ph.D student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Ajmal Khan, human rights lawyer Jagdish Meshram, and Dalit activist Veera Sathidar, who also acted in the film Court.

Senior officials from the Maharashtra Home Department said the government is not in the know of any activity involving private or government organisations snooping on activists and lawyers in the state. The process of phone tapping is carried out through a committee of senior officials while any procurement of international products — if at all a spyware was bought as is being alleged from Israel — is carried out through the permission of at least five senior secretaries of the Government, they claimed. “We have nothing to do with this issue and if at all this has happened it was outside the ambit of the Government protocols and systems,” said a senior secretary of the Maharashtra Government. Senior NCP leader Dhananjay Munde said: "This is a serious breach of personal privacy and the honourable Governor should initiate a probe to get to the bottom of who is behind this," he said.

 

The activists said they were only made aware of the bugging when they received a messaged from Toronto-based Citizen Lab, while lawyer Nihalsing Rathod claimed there were previous attempts to hack into his email since 2017 and before. Others said they were surprised for being targeted even as they were mildly associated with splinter progressive movements. “I have been associated many movements but never thought would be targeted by a spyware ever,” said Mumbai-based Vivek Sundara.

Chhattisgarh-based activist Bela Bhatia was also approached by Citizen’s Lab in early October this year. The lab she said was open about its identity and objective. “They also said that WhatsApp will also message you stating that the security of your phone has been compromised. I used to get video calls on WhatsApp but I always ignored them because I am not comfortable with video calls. But it is now emerging that even with blank calls, they can get hack your phone,” she said. Ms Bhatia said that she will be getting in touch with other activists who have been targeted see what future course of action can be taken. “It was only today when the new broke I have realised I should have taken the calls from the Toronto based lab more seriously. They had been trying to contact me,” said Mr. Khan who as also been working closely with the Bhima Koregaon activists and Dalit movements in Mumbai.

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