WhatsApp spy scandal: We know how evidence was planted in Koregaon case, says activist

Updated: Nov 01, 2019, 09:33 IST | Diwakar Sharma | Mumbai

As WhatsApp spy scandal erupts, activist Nihalsing Rathod says the security breach may have been used to frame human rights activists

Lawyer Nihalsing Rathod
Lawyer Nihalsing Rathod

After news broke that an Israeli firm breached WhatsApp's security, which in turn enabled the snooping of journalists and activists, a Nagpur activist whose phone was compromised has claimed that this is how fake evidence must have been planted on those accused in the Bhima Koregaon violence case.

On October 29, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the Israeli company, NSO Group, for breaching its encrypted messaging app's video calling facility for a spy program. The Indian Express reported on October 31 that this spyware, named Pegasus, was used to snoop on Indian journalists and activists. Reports said that phones were infiltrated by simply placing a video call to the recipient, irrespective of whether they answered it or not.

WhatsApp reportedly handed over all the details of the breached numbers to a University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which in turn alerted the compromised activists in India. One of them, Nagpur-based Nihalsing Rathod, confirmed to mid-day that his smartphone was bugged with the malware. Rathod represents one of the five human rights activists who were arrested in June 2018 on charges of inciting violence and plotting against the state – lawyer Surendra Gadling, professor Shoma Sen, poet Sudhir Dhawale, and activists Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson. Five more activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha – were arrested in August 2018.

The Bombay High Court on October 14 denied bail to three of them, citing strong evidence. "One day, I got a video call from an unidentified international number on my WhatsApp," said Rathod. "It is now known that their modus operandi was to make a video call from unknown international numbers, say once in a month or two months. I used to ignore and block these numbers suspecting a phishing attack. But in January and February this year, the frequency increased. To three to four calls in a day from different international numbers. I complained to WhatsApp on March 28, but they never responded. On October 14, a person from Citizen Lab told me about this breach by an Israeli cyber surveillance firm."

Rathod said activists have also been receiving emails with 'strange zip file attachments, which when opened had no content. He said Citizen Lab told him it was another way of installing malware on someone's computer. Rathod said Gadling too received regular video calls on WhatsApp and was bombarded with emails containing malware. "We did not pay much attention," said Rathod. "But we later found that these numbers were from Belgium and were used in phishing attacks. I told Gadling not to answer those calls, delete suspicious emails and install anti-virus software. But I don't know if the measures worked."

Making a veiled attack on government agencies, Rathod said, "Now I have been corelating things and have reason to strongly suspect that the malware was used to plant letters in Gadling's computer. One such letter says 'Modi assassination', which was hyped by the police in courts. We know who could benefit by planting such letters in someone's computer. If we put two and two together, we make out that it will be government agencies that wanted to implicate these activists." The Indian government denied any involvement in the scandal, saying it is committed to protecting the fundamental rights of citizens. A home ministry official said: "It is clarified that the government of India operates strictly as per provisions of law."

The state police's Cybercrime chief Brijesh Singh, said, "So far, no victim in Maharashtra has come forward to register a case." Rathod urged affected people to come forward and litigate. "It is extremely necessary that affected people come forward and litigate, that being the only platform available in the given state of undeclared emergency," he said. "A well-planned, consolidated action may bear fruits. It is ridiculous to know that the government is stooping so low to falsely implicate its own people. I am trying to get in touch with similarly affected people to appeal to them to make joint complaints at various forums."

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