The recent WhatsApp hacking
scandal and the Indian government's response reminds one of this joke about
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson: they are on a camping trip and go to sleep in a
tent. In the middle of the night, Holmes shakes Watson awake and asks, "Watson,
what do you see?" Watson says he sees thousands of stars, to which Holmes
replies, "You idiot, somebody has stolen our tent!"
IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad
told the media that the government had asked WhatAapp (which is owned by
Facebook) to give an explanation. Of course, WhatsApp/Facebook should be called
out. But what about the Israeli surveillance company called NSO Group that sold
its Pegasus spyware to, as yet, unknown clients so that they could hack into
the phones of at least 17 Indian lawyers, activists and journalists using a
flaw in WhatsApp's digital infrastructure? The Modi government has very
friendly relations with the Israelis. Should they not ask Prime Minister
Netanyahu or the Israeli intelligence apparatus to press NSO to reveal the
clients? Remember that the Israeli government has reportedly classified Pegasus as a 'weapon' because of its
very powerful features and its potentially dangerous use.
After all, the big question here
is this: cui bono, that is, who benefits? Who would want the phone
records/activity of Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and Bhima
Koregaon case accused Sudha Bharadwaj's lawyer; Advocate Nihalsingh Rathod, who
heads the Human Rights Law Network in Nagpur, and is a lawyer of accused
Surendra Gadling in the same case; Bela Bhatia, Adivasi rights activist from
Chhattisgarh; Anand Teltumbde, academic and writer on Dalit issues, also an
accused in the same case; Ankit Grewal, who represented Sudha Bharadwaj; and
several other activists and journalists?
Only the Indian government or
its agencies, or even state governments would have any advantage in getting
their hands on their phone data. The 10 persons involved in the Bhima Koregaon
case have been accused of such serious charges like planning to assassinate PM
Modi, overthrow the government, and so on. Till date, despite over a year of
investigations, nothing much has emerged, which makes for a strong motivation
to scrounge around for some clue in the activists' phones.
That this is not just a pie in
the sky is confirmed by reports of how Pegasus has been put to use elsewhere in
the world by governments. There are reports of it having been used in Mexico to
spy upon journalists, in Rwanda to spy upon a human rights' activists and there
is even a link to the infamous murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi.
INTERESTED IN SPYING
In December 2018, the government
notified that 10 central security agencies and authorities would be allowed to
carry out surveillance of all electronic communications, internet-based
activity and computers, empowered under the Information Technology Act, 2000.
The matter was challenged in the Supreme Court where in March 2019, the
government said that it had a detailed Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for
such surveillance. But the bottom line was that bureaucrats would review applications
for surveillance-and we all know how bureaucrats function. The petitioners in
the Supreme Court had pointed
out that in 2017, enforcement
authorities ordered Facebook, Google and Twitter for data of more than 200,000
accounts under various laws. Earlier, the Srikrishna Committee had said that
review authorities meet once in two months and have the task of reviewing more
than 15,000-18,000 surveillance orders. So, there is a whole lot of agencies in
this game and they are given the green signal more often than not.
In fact, it is not just the
central government and its agencies that would be interested in spying on the
current bunch of activists. As the emails leaked from the 'Hacking Team' (now archived at Wikileaks) have shown, state police departments
too are actively seeking tools to snoop on their targets. The case documented
is of the Andhra Pradesh police scouting around for surveillance tools in 2015.
As recently as March this year, there
were reports that
the intelligence department of Andhra Pradesh state government had acquired an
Israeli device or tool for breaking WhatsApp encryption. This was just before
the Lok Sabha elections in May this year.
So, the answer to the question 'who benefits?' by acquiring Pegasus yields a whole phalanx of deadly curious
agencies, both central and state-level. Who knows, there may even be some
private agencies that have been roped in to provide the services! After all,
many unthinkable services are these days outsourced to shadowy NGOs, like the
one which handled the recent MEPs visit to Kashmir.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
Ministry officials have been
quoted in media reports as complaining that senior WhatsApp officials never
mentioned this leak in meetings with them in May this year. WhatsApp has
quickly countered, saying they had mentioned it. Other reports suggest that
officials complained still more that WhatsApp just gave them 'technical jargon' (sic) implying thereby that the IT Ministry couldn't understand it.
Ridiculous as all this sounds,
there is a method in this madness. Prasad may or may not be in the loop on the
whole thing. But all this speculation about WhatsApp and Prasad's indignation
has created a fog within days of the scandal spilling out. It has become a game
of smoke and mirrors. The government, through Prasad, is seemingly outraged and
full of righteous indignation, just as it was in March 2018, when it was
revealed that a UK-based data analytics company Cambridge Analytica (CA) had
stolen data of 87 million Facebook users. Prasad had similarly
Facebook and threatened legal action.
One and a half years later,
nothing has happened as far as India is concerned although in the UK, Cambridge
Analytica closed down and Facebook
has paid 500,000 pounds to
the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), to settle the latter's
investigation into the scandal. India's Central Bureau of Investigation is
Facebook and the now defunct CA.
As this cut and thrust between India and WhatsApp
continues, nobody is paying attention to whoever used Pegasus to snoop on
diverse Indian citizens. Maybe that's what the government wants.