Our security and freedom depend on secure phones, says Will Cathcart
Following revelations that NSO Group’s ‘Pegasus’ software may have been used to snoop on journalists, politicians and activists worldwide, including holders of 300 Indian phone numbers, WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart has called on governments and companies to take steps to hold the Israeli technology firm accountable.
The list of Indian numbers include those related to recently appointed Minister for Communication, IT and Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister of State for Jal Shakti Prahlad Singh Patel as well as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
When contacted, Mr Patel said, “I am not such an important man. Ashwiniji has already given a reply in Parliament and there is nothing else to say on this topic.”
In a tweet, Mr. Cathcart said, “This is a wake up call for security on the Internet. The mobile phone is the primary computer for billions of people. Governments and companies must do everything they can to make it as secure as possible. Our security and freedom depend on it.”
WhatsApp had in 2019 sued the NSO Group, accusing it of using the former’s messaging service to conduct cyber-espionage on roughly 1,400 user accounts, including those of journalists and human rights activists.
Mr. Cathcart added that there is a need for more companies, and, critically, governments, to take steps to hold NSO Group accountable. “Once again, we urge a global moratorium on the use of unaccountable surveillance technology now. It’s past time,” he said.
Meanwhile, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, in a jibe aimed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tweeted, “We know what he’s been reading — everything on your phone! #Pegasus”.
Explained | Pegasus, the spyware that came in via WhatsApp
In a statement, the CPI (M) said the Central government must answer and come clean on using the Pegasus cyber software for surveillance of Indian citizens in an illegal and unauthorised manner. It further pointed out that two years ago, the party had raised concerns in Parliament that this spyware was being used in India as revealed by WhatsApp. The Modi government’s response had not categorically denied that it engaged the services of NSO but claimed that there is no “unauthorized surveillance,” the party said.
“Use of a cyber spy software to hack smartphones even by the government is prohibited under Indian laws. Under what law has the government undertaken such surveillance activities over citizens? The right to privacy is a fundamental right as laid down by the Supreme Court, but this BJP government is prevaricating on legislating the privacy law,” the CPI (M) added.
Likewise, CPI general secretary D. Raja said, “It seems this government is very close to the Israeli administration. The revelations are extremely shocking. The Prime Minister needs to clarify and concede that the government does not believe in the privacy of its citizens.”
Reacting to the surveillance revelations, the India-based not-for-profit Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said there is a need for urgent surveillance reform to protect citizens against the use of such invasive technologies which hamper their fundamental right to privacy and threaten the democratic ideals of India.
“Use of such surveillance technology on journalists leads to a chilling effect as it precludes them from working and reporting on sensitive matters, some of which may also be against the ruling government, without jeopardising themselves and the personal safety of their sources,” the IFF said. It added that such snooping also stops human rights defenders from working with vulnerable people, some of whom may have been victimised by their own government, without opening them up to further abuse.
Watch | Explained: Pegasus, the spyware that came in via WhatsApp
The Foundation also called upon the Narendra Modi-led government to stand by its democratic commitments and reject the use of spyware in their pursuit of social objectives of policing and security.
“Legislative measures must be introduced in Parliament to uphold the Right to Privacy decision of the Supreme Court of India recognising privacy as a fundamental right. The use of legal or technical means to access data and intercept communications in India must be authorised only in emergency situations, under judicial control and oversight, and with other protections to safeguard our citizens,” it said.
Edward Snowden, the whistleblower behind surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), said the NSO Group should bear direct, criminal liability for the deaths and detentions of those targeted by the digital infection vectors it sells, which have no legitimate use.
The NSO, however, has said that it sells its technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts. NSO does not operate the system and has no visibility to the data, the group said. “NSO products are used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terror,” as per the company’s website.
Congress leader Manish Tiwari pointed out that to check unauthorised surveillance by intelligence agencies, he had moved a Bill in 2011 — Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulation) Bill 2011, and has listed it for introduction again.
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