- Centre committed to protect citizens' fundamental rights: Home ministry
- It said strict action would be taken against those who violated the law
- The Congress alleged that the Centre was "caught snooping"
The government today said it had asked WhatsApp to explain the breach of privacy of Indian users who were targeted by Israeli spyware earlier this year. It also said attempts to malign the government for the reported breach were completely misleading and "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.
At least two of the activists allegedly on the snoop list have alleged the role of the government, which has emphatically denied it.
The Israeli NSO, the cybersecurity company believed to have used the spyware, said, "Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists" and is licensed only to "vetted and legitimate government agencies". Facebook has sued NSO, accusing it of using WhatsApp to spread malware.
Union Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also hit out at the opposition Congress, accusing it of snooping on "highly reputed individuals" at the instance of one family.
Mr Prasad's statement came after WhatsApp confirmed that several Indian users had been targeted by Israeli spyware earlier this year in a hacking spree that included journalists, activists, lawyers and senior government officials. The journalists and activists are believed to have been spied on for two weeks in April. WhatsApp's parent company Facebook has sued Israeli cybersecurity company NSO alleging it used WhatsApp servers to spread malware to 1,400 users across 20 countries. Pegasus, a spyware developed by NSO, was used to break into the phones.
"The 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,"Mr Prasad said.
"The government is committed to protecting the 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," said the minister.
As the controversy erupted this morning, the Congress alleged that the government had been "caught snooping" and should be taken to the Supreme Court.
"Modi Government caught snooping! Appalling but not Surprising! After all, BJP Govt- 1. fought against our right to privacy. 2. Set up a multi crore surveillance structure until stopped by the Supreme Court. The court must take immediate cognizance and issue notice to BJP government," tweeted Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
He also posted that "a government that spies on journalists/activists/Opposition leaders and treats its own citizens like criminals has lost the right to lead in our democracy."
In a sharp rejoinder, Mr Prasad reminded the Congress of snooping scandals on its watch.
"Those trying to make political capital out of it need to be gently reminded about the bugging incident in the office of the then eminent Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee during UPA regime. Also a gentle reminder of the spying over the then Army Chief General VK Singh. These are instances of breach of privacy of highly reputed individuals, for personal whims and fancies of a family," the minister said.