- Activist Bela Bhatia was told that centre may have had a role to play.
- Rights lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod alleged a link with Bhima Koregaon case.
- Centre denied claims, and asked WhatsApp for an explanation.
Journalists, human rights activists and lawyers for activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case are among Indian targets of a massive snoop through Israeli spyware that broke into phones through WhatsApp. The individuals were targets of surveillance in two weeks of April.
Some names that have been confirmed are human rights lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod, Chhattisgarh-based activist Bela Bhatia, lawyer Degree Prasad Chouhan, journalist Sidhant Sibal and writer-activist Anand Teltumbde.
Speaking to NDTV, Nihalsingh Rathod and Bela Bhatia said they had been contacted by Citizens' Lab, a research organization based in the University of Toronto.
"They informed me that I was on a list sent to them by WhatsApp in April. The person told me it is sophisticated spyware, it can access all information from your phone," Bela Bhatia told NDTV.
It was like carrying a spy in the pocket, she was told. "It can access every conversation if kept in a room," she said. The caller also explained to her that the sort of people targeted by the spyware were lawyers and activists. "He very clearly told me from our study and analysis we can clearly and categorically say this is your own government that has done it," said the activist, who says she works in Maoist-hit Bastar with victims of police and security forces' excesses.
Ms Bhatia says she received WhatsApp's message on Tuesday.
Nihalsingh Rathod has circulated a letter calling the news "chilling". He said he had complained to WhatsApp in April.
Mr Rathod alleged that those facing allegations in the Bhima Koregaon case had been targeted using the spyware. "I have reason to believe that the Bhima Koregaon case is based on the letters which were planted through this route or some other route. The ridiculous contents of those letters make it more apparent," he said.
"Spyware gives complete access to your phone. They can plant documents through an external source. Documents incriminating my clients were planted through Pegasus spyware," said Mr Rathod, but he added that it was his conclusion; he couldn't prove his allegations.
The spyware "Pegasus" gets into the user's phone when the person gets a video call. As the phone rings, the attacker transmits a malicious code and the spyware is installed even if the user does not answer the call at all.
By taking over the phone's systems, the attacker gets access to the user's WhatsApp messages and calls, regular voice calls, passwords, contact lists, calendar events, phone's microphone and camera.
It can even turn on the camera and mic to track and hear what is happening around the user.
The government denied the allegations, saying it had no role in this.
"Government of India is concerned at the breach of privacy of citizens of India on the messaging platform Whatsapp. We have asked Whatsapp to explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens," said Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
"Government is committed to protecting privacy of all Indian citizens. Government agencies have a well-established protocol for interception, which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central and state governments, for clear stated reasons in national interest," the minister added.