Who has NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware targeted in India?
individuals, including human rights activists, scholars, and journalists, have
so far confirmed that they were targeted by spyware on the messaging platform
Here’s what the 22 people said
about the calls they received from Citizen Lab informing them that they were
targeted using the spyware:
Gera, Chhattisgarh-based activist
Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur
Legal Aid Group said that when John Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab contacted her
in the first week of October, she first googled and convinced herself of his
credibility before taking him seriously.
- Nihalsing Rathod, Nagpur-based lawyer
Advocate Nihalsing Rathod, who
heads the Human Rights Law Network in Nagpur, alleged that the incriminatory
letters cited as evidence in the Bhima Koregaon case may have been planted by
government agencies through the spyware. Rathod said Citizen Lab got in touch
with him on October 7, he spoke to the group on October 14, and he also
received the official communication from WhatsApp about the security breach on
- Bela Bhatia, Adivasi rights activist
Chhattisgarh-based human rights
activist Bela Bhatia also claimed to have been targets of the surveillance. She
said Citizen Lab advised her to change her phone and told her that she had been
a target because of her work, as had other human rights activists and lawyers.
- Degree Prasad Chauhan, activist
Degree Prasad Chauhan, a human
rights activist based in Chhattisgarh, said he first received an email on
September 26, and then an official message from WhatsApp informing him that he
had been a target of the spyware. He said he may have been a target because he
had been working on Dalit rights for more than 15 years and had raised his
voice against atrocities against Dalits.
- Anand Teltumbde, academic, and writer on Dalit
Anand Teltumbde, who is also an
accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, received a call from Citizen Lab around
eight or nine days ago to inform him that he had been targeted. “I was cautious
at first but after checking with friends, I realized they were legitimate,” he
told Scroll.in. “They told me this [the spyware] was a
sophisticated program that could take control of your phone: turn on the
microphone and the camera, steal your passwords.”
- Shubhranshu Choudhary, former BBC journalist
Shubhranshu Choudhary, who works
in Chhattisgarh as a peace activist, said he was also first informed by Citizen
Lab that he had been a target of surveillance over WhatsApp. When Citizen Lab
contacted him, he asked, “How do I trust you?” After verifying Citizen Lab’s
credentials, he took the group’s advice on beefing up his digital security, he
- Ankit Grewal, Chandigarh-based lawyer
Lawyer Ankit Grewal, who
represented Bhima Koregaon case accused Sudha Bharadwaj, said that he had been
suspicious for some time now as he used to get missed calls on WhatsApp from
foreign numbers. This made him change handsets frequently.
- Ashish Gupta, Delhi-based activist
Ashish Gupta, an activist with
the People’s Union for Democratic Rights who lives in Delhi, said he received a
call from a “Canada-based NGO” – a possible reference to the Citizen Lab –
about a month ago. “They said, ‘Do you know your mobile phone has been hacked?’
I replied, ‘Yes, it is possible’.”
Seema Azad, an activist with the
People’s Union for Civil Liberties based in Allahabad, said she received a
message from WhatsApp alerting her about the possibility that her phone may
have been compromised. “I had been receiving international calls but I did not
take it seriously until I read in the newspaper today that many people have
been targeted,” she said. “I read that human rights activist, lawyers and
journalists have been targeted. I am all three.”
Sundara, social and environmental activist
Activist Vivek Sundara said he
got a message from John Scott-Railton of Citizens Lab about a week ago, saying
he was a possible victim of the hack. “I deleted it [the message] because it
seemed suspicious,” he said. “He sent it again. I deleted it again. Then I got
a message from WhatsApp telling me about cybersecurity and what measures I
could take to secure myself. I still thought it was spam. It’s not until I met
Shalini Gera yesterday and she told me that she had received a similar call
that I began to take this seriously.”
Giri, assistant professor at Delhi University
Saroj Giri, an assistant
professor in the Department of Political Science, said he got a message from
Citizen Lab earlier this month. “Was slightly spooked but also tickled me
somewhat because this was such advanced malware,” he said. “They said that the Pegasus
virus had been installed on my phone. I ignored it. But the next day they
called me on WhatsApp. Since then, they have been in regular touch with me.”
WION, a news channel, said its
diplomatic and defence correspondent SidhantSibal had also been targeted by the
Sharma, strategic analyst, and columnist
Strategic analyst Rajeev Sharma
said he had got a detailed message from WhatsApp about the security breach.
“Besides, a fortnight before that, I got a call from Citizen Lab – a fairly
long conversation – wherein I was told that my phone was under surveillance
from March to May this year.”
Rupali Jadhav, an activist with
the Kabir Kala Manch in Mumbai, was informed by the Citizen Lab of the hack on
her phone a few days ago, and later by WhatsApp. Some members of the group have
been arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Bhartiya, veteran journalist and former MP
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 using the
service about two days ago.
Meshram, a lawyer based in Nagpur
Jagdish Meshram, an advocate
from Nagpur, Maharashtra, who is part of the Indian Association for Peoples’
Lawyers and has worked with human rights lawyers Surendra Gadling and Nihalsing
Rathod, said that he had received at least 30 to 40 WhatsApp video calls from
unknown international numbers between March 28 and May 10.
Alok Shukla, the convenor of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, an umbrella group of activist organizations in the state, said he received an alert from WhatsApp on October 30. Unlike others, however, he was previously warned by the Citizen Lab.
Khan, academic and activist
Ajmal Khan, an activist and
doctoral candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, initially ignored
the news he got from Citizen Lab about a WhatsApp security breach. “I didn’t
think it was too important and I was too busy,”
- BallaRavindranath, Hyderabad-based
BallaRavindranath said he did not remember ever receiving WhatsApp calls from
unknown international numbers. However, on October 7, he received a message on
the platform from a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab informing him that he
possibly faced a digital risk. The researcher asked Ravindranath if they could
set up a time for a chat.
Singh, a lawyer based in Chandigarh
Mandeep Singh, a
Chandigarh-based lawyer, received a WhatsApp video call from an unknown international
number at the end of September. “I could not answer the phone at the time but I
assumed it was from a friend in Canada or Australia,” said Singh. “When I
checked my phone later, I noticed that there was no missed call showing in my
Pavana, daughter of Bhima Koregaon accused Varavara Rao
P Pavana, who lives in
Hyderabad, said she received the warning alert from WhatsApp on the night of
October 29. “At the time I just thought it was a routine alert sent by
WhatsApp,” she told Scroll.in. Only after she read the news reports
on Thursday did she realize that this was specifically sent to her. However,
she did not receive any message from The Citizen Lab.
Arunank, a Hyderabad resident
pursuing his Ph.D., said that around three months ago, he received a number of
WhatsApp video group calls from unknown numbers beginning with the code +44,
which is the code for the United Kingdom. “When I tried to answer the calls,
they would get disconnected immediately,” Arunank told Scroll.in.
“I assumed it was somebody’s mistake.”
Is WhatsApp safe or one should
switch to another app like Telegram?
Almost every popular messaging
app is targeted by hackers or cybercriminals. Law enforcement agencies across the
world need messages to be decrypted to analyse any suspicious activity.
Talking about Telegram, only the
secret chats are end-to-end encrypted while on WhatsApp everything is
end-to-end encrypted by default which seems safe so far.
Those rattled by the WhatsApp episode
might want to switch to another app. However, it is important to be aware that
unknown ‘zero-day’ exploits could exist for virtually every software and app in
the world and that they might be exploited at some point in the future by individuals
or agencies determined to do so.
Be aware, you are being watched.