Who has NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware targeted in India?
Twenty-two individuals, including human rights activists, scholars, and journalists, have so far confirmed that they were targeted by spyware on the messaging platform WhatsApp.
Here’s what the 22 people said about the calls they received from Citizen Lab informing them that they were targeted using the spyware:
- Shalini 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 October 29.
- 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 issues
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 said.
- 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, activist
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.”
- Vivek 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.”
- Saroj 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.”
- SidhantSibal, journalist
WION, a news channel, said its diplomatic and defence correspondent SidhantSibal had also been targeted by the spyware.
- Rajeev 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, activist
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.
- Santosh 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.
- Jagdish 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, activist
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.
- Ajmal 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 advocate
Hyderabad-based advocate 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.
- Mandeep 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 call log.”
- P 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 law graduate
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.