- WhatsApp said it remains committed to the protection of all user messages
- India had asked WhatsApp to explain the nature of the privacy breach
- WhatsApp had said it contacted many Indian users who were hit by spyware
WhatsApp had informed Indian authorities in May about a privacy breach that affected some users in the country and worked quickly to resolve it, the Facebook-owned company said in a statement on Friday, a day after the government demanded an explanation.
"Our highest priority is the privacy and security of WhatsApp users. In May we quickly resolved a security issue and notified relevant Indian and international government authorities," a company spokesperson said in a statement.
"Since then we've worked to identify targeted users to ask the courts to hold the international spyware firm known as the NSO Group accountable," the statement said.
"We agree with the government of India it's critical that together we do all we can to protect users from hackers attempting to weaken security. WhatsApp remains committed to the protection of all user messages through the product we provide," it added.
Government sources, however, have denied this, saying WhatsApp only informed them about the vulnerability of their app in "technical jargon" in May and that the company made no mention of Pegasus spyware and Indian users being targeted.
India, WhatsApp's biggest market with 400 million users, had asked the company to explain the nature of a privacy breach on its messaging platform and said "strict action" would be taken against those guilty of violating the law.
"The government of India is committed to protect the fundamental rights of Indian citizens, including the right to privacy. It is clarified that the government operates strictly as per provisions of law and laid down protocols. There are adequate safeguards to ensure that no innocent citizen is harassed or his privacy breached," the home ministry said in a statement.
The surveillance revelations come after the messaging platform sued Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group on Tuesday, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users across four continents including diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and government officials. NSO denied the allegations.
In its lawsuit filed in a federal court in San Francisco, WhatsApp accused NSO of facilitating government hacking sprees in 20 countries, calling it "an unmistakable pattern of abuse."
The attack, according to WhatsApp, exploited its video calling system in order to send malware to the mobile devices of a number of users. The malware would allow NSO's clients - said to be governments and intelligence organisations - to secretly spy on a phone's owner, opening their digital lives up to scrutiny.
People familiar with WhatsApp's investigation told news agency Reuters that a significant number of Indian civil society figures were put under surveillance using the Israeli spyware.
While WhatsApp has not identified anyone by name, users including lawyers, academics, Dalit rights activists and journalists have come forward to say they received warnings from the messaging that they were the targets of espionage.