‘It’s Clear Who’s Spying & Why’: WhatsApp-Pegasus Attack Targets
The victims say they were targeted through video calls from unknown numbers or emails with attachments.
Several Dalit rights lawyers and activists, including Bhima-Koregaon case lawyer Nihal Singh Rathod and Jagdalpur Legal Aid group member Shalini Gera, confirmed to The Quint that they were informed by WhatsApp of a spyware attack that had targeted them in May.
At least two dozen Indians are among the 1,400-odd individuals who are confirmed to have been targeted globally by the spyware and surveilled. Other names in the list include Anand Teltumbde, Bela Bhatia and other such human rights activists. Former Union Minister and NCP leader Praful Patel was also targeted according to Hindustan Times (HT).
Catch all the coverage on WhatsApp snooping here.
WhatsApp is suing Israeli spyware developer NSO Group for using its spyware Pegasus to exploit a vulnerability in WhatsApp that allowed attackers to plant it in users’ phones just by ringing the target’s device. The IT Ministry on Thursday, 31 October, sought a detailed response from WhatsApp on the attack by 4 November.
The NSO Group, however, has maintained that it only sells the licences to its spyware tools to governments and State agencies with the approval of that country’s government.
Here are a few people who confirmed that they were informed of the attack by WhatsApp:
Nihal Singh Rathod, Bhima-Koregaon Lawyer
Nihalsingh Rathod, a Nagpur-based human rights lawyer representing Bhima-Koregaon accused Surendra Gadling, told The Quint that he had received video calls from unknown international numbers starting with +31 and +45 as far back as 2017 and intermittently in 2019.
“I had been getting video calls from a single number and within a few seconds another number would get added. This happened several times but I got suspicious and did not take the call,” Rathod said.
Gadchiroli-based lawyer Jagdish Meshram and activist-actor Vira Sathidar (who was seen in Court) also told The Quint that they had received similar video calls and mails from unknown numbers.
“I reached out to WhatsApp in March but got no response from their end. I only got a message from Citizen Lab on 8 October and one from WhatsApp on 29 October.”
Surendra Gadling, a human rights lawyer and Dalit rights activist, was among the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Bela Bhatia, Chhattisgarh-Based Dalit Rights Activist
Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist based in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, was among those who were attacked by the spyware and has received a confirmation of this from WhatsApp.
She has in the past been attacked and threatened for her advocacy of Adivasi rights and been targeted as a "Naxal" sympathiser.
Bhatia told The Quint, "I had received a message from Citizen Lab in late September which had asked me to change my phone."
"Then two days ago, on 29 October, I was alerted by WhatsApp," she added.
Shalini Gera, Chhattisgarh-Based Lawyer
Shalini Gera, another lawyer in Chhattisgarh and the secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in the state, also received messages from Citizen Lab and WhatsApp confirming that she has been a target of the spyware.
Gera had previously worked with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid, a group of women lawyers who provide free legal aid to tribal people implicated in Maoist-related cases.
In 2016, Gera and her other team members were allegedly 'forcibly' asked by the Chhattisgarh Police to vacate their residences within eight days. She told The Quint, “I have no clue [why I was targeted].” She is also part of the legal team that is fighting the case for activist Sudha Bhardwaj, accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case.
Gera says she received a "mysterious email" a month ago on a joint JagLag email ID and when she reached out to Citizen Lab, they confirmed that it contained sypware.
Degree Prasad Chauhan, Activist
Degree Prasad Chauhan, a human rights activist based in Chhattisgarh, told Scroll.in that he first received an email on 26 September and then an official message from WhatsApp informing him that he had been targeted. He told the website that he might have been targeted because he had been working on Dalit rights for more than 15 years and had raised his voice against Dalit atrocities.
Ankit Grewal, Bhima Koregaon Lawyer
Ankit Grewal, a lawyer who represented Bhima Koregaon case accused Sudha Bharadwaj told Scroll that he got suspicious as he used to get missed calls on WhatsApp from foreign numbers. The report said that this made him change phones frequently.
Grewal told the website that his suspicions were confirmed when in September, when Citizen Lab contacted him to tell him that his phone had been hacked with the Israeli snooping software Pegasus.
Anand Teltumbde, Academic
Anand Teltumbde, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, was also one of the targets in the spyware attack.
He told The Quint, “The company themselves have said that it sells the licence to only government and its agencies. So it is very clear who has been spying on us. The malware can get into your phone, and snoop on you while you are at home, with your friends or family. This is worse than dictatorship.”
Shubhranshu Choudhary, Former BBC Journalist
A former BBC journalist, Shubhranshu Choudhary, who now works in Chhattisgarh as a peace activist was also informed by Citizen Lab about the surveillance. He told Scroll.in he suspects that he was targeted because he was currently working on a peace process in Bastar.
Ashish Gupta, Delhi-Based PUCL Activist
Another People's Union for Democratic Rights Activist based in Delhi recalled that in July, he was forcibly removed from several WhatsApp groups, including those he was an administrator of. "That time, I dismissed the issue thinking it was a technical glitch but now I'm wondering if this was connected to the surveillance."
Vivek Sundara, Activist
Vivek Sundara, social and environmental activist told Scroll that he got a message from Citizen Lab about a week ago, saying he was a possible victim of the hack.
He told the website that he deleted the message multiple times, thinking it was spam. However, he said that after meeting with Shalini Gera, he was able to take this seriously.
Ajmal Khan, Activist
Ajmal Khan, an activist and a doctoral candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), also told Scroll that he initially ignored the news he got from Citizen Lab.
However, once the news broke, he felt that it was his work as an activist and his time at TISS is what could have put him on the government’s radar. “I have been quite active in Bombay in the anti-caste movement and civil liberties movements including Bhima Koregaon. I used to work with Prakash Ambedkar. This could be the reason,” he was quoted by the website as saying.
Saroj Giri, DU Professor
An assistant political science professor in Delhi University, Saroj Giri, was also informed by Citizen Lab that the Pegasus virus was installed on his phone.
A journalist working at news channel Wion, Sidhant Sibal, covering diplomatic and defence affairs, was also a victim of the spyware attack.
Santosh Bhartiya, Former MP and Journalist
Santosh Bhartiya, a former Lok Sabha MP and veteran journalist told Scroll.in that he received an alert from WhatsApp about a possible hack on his phone about two days back.
He said that he had earlier ignored a message from a member of the Citizen Lab thinking it was a hacker.
“I don’t know why I was targeted, I’m a small journalist, not a big one.” But maybe they are targeting pro-people journalists who do fair journalism,” he was quoted by Scroll as saying. When asked about who was he referring to, he said, “the Indian government or whoever else may have done this.”
Rajeev Sharma, Independent Journalist
Independent journalist Rajeev Sharma got a call from Citizen Lab a fortnight ago, detailing how his phone was under surveillance from March to May.
“No idea [why the government might be tapping me]. They [Citizen Lab] suggested that if I could change my handset I will be more secure. But I didn’t and told them in another conversation later on that I am not doing so because I am not indulging in any illegal or anti-national activity," he told Scroll.in.
Seema Azad, Activist
Seema Azad, an activist with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Allahabad, said she received a message from WhatsApp alerting her about the possibility that her phone may have been compromised.
Like a few others, she said she used to receive international calls but did not take anything seriously till she read it in the newspaper on Thursday, 31 October.
“I read that human rights activists, lawyers and journalists have been targeted. I am all three.”Seema Azad, Activist
Rupali Jadhav, Human Rights Activist
Rupali Jadhav, a member of the theatre group Kabir Kala Manch known for fierce advocacy of Dalit rights, claimed she was also a target of the spyware attack.
Speaking to The Quint, she said, "Initially when Citizen Lab informed me that my phone has been targeted, I did not take it seriously thinking I don't even have anything to hide. But later when WhatsApp also messaged me on 29 October, I got worried."
She had handled the social media activities during the Bhima Koregaon protests. She has also worked towards promoting Prakash Ambedkar's Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi before the Lok Sabha elections.
Alok Shukla, Activist
Convenor of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, Alok Shukla said he received an alert from WhatsApp on 30 October. He was, however, he was previously warned by the Citizen Lab, Scroll reported.
“I did not pay attention to the alert till I read about it in the newspaper. Now I remember receiving several WhatsApp calls from strange numbers earlier this year.”Alok Shukla, Acivist
He told Scroll that he suspects the surveillance could have been directed at him because of his activism.
Ravindranath Bhalla, Advocate
Advocate at Telangana High Court and general secretary of Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana chapter) Ravindranath Bhalla told The Indian Express that he had received a message from Citizen Lab on 7 October, telling him that they worked on tracking threats against civil society from the Internet, but that he had ignored it.
However, after he received an official message from WhatsApp, he had reached out to Citizen Lab and was beginning to understand the implications of the situation.
(With inputs from Scroll.in and The Indian Express.)
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