As WhatsApp tries to undo its shame of snooping malware, questions arise about why civil society was targeted
Information warfare is winning elections, changing regimes and recasting people’s opinions and policy across the world. And social media platforms have emerged as the favoured tools given their porosity and vulnerabilities. Hackers are being used to spread malware across the information highway, commissioned by vested interests, corporations and even governments, to mine sensitive data. Clearly, social messaging platform WhatsApp has not been able to proof itself from hackers who have injected 1.5 billion phones with surveillance software despite an update in May. Many experts then had even warned that the military-grade software transmitted through something as basic as a missed call could now be used by less sophisticated hackers. So it is no surprise that the messaging company has now confirmed that an Israeli spyware, called Pegasus, was used by operators to spy on journalists and human rights activists in India. It said it was aware of those targetted and had reached out to them but refused to put out a number though it claimed it was “not insignificant.” Although the Government has sought a response from WhatsApp and the company itself is suing NSO, the Israeli firm behind the snooping technology, there are questions about the nature and intent of the operation. NSO claims that it usually works with Governments and its agencies across the world as their big brother. The 1,400 affected users span four continents and include diplomats, political dissidents, activists, journalists and senior government officials. Which means that the establishments of nation states were involved in some way. The spyware itself is very effective in profiling a person on both his private and public domains and, therefore, most relied upon as a watchdog. If the user clicks on an exploit link, it allows the operator to penetrate security features on the phone without the user’s knowledge. It can then control the phone and gain access to information like passwords, contact lists, calendar events, text messages, mails and percolate to other apps loaded on it. Given this pattern, could the India episode really have an official endorsement of sorts as is being feared? The names of those targetted certainly seem to confirm doubts considering that they are all critics of mainstream discourse and have been rights champions. Besides stifling dissent has not been restricted to the cyberspace but is now common across India. Apart from journalists who have been critical of the Government, the list includes activists who are Left-leaning, sympathetic to the Dalits in the Bhima-Koregaon case and even those working at the grassroots in Chhattisgarh. Looking back at the harsh crackdowns on activists of Bhima Koregaon and charging them with something as serious as sedition, the takedown and trolling of anybody who is a truth-seeker, ruining the career fate of journalists daring to present an alternative perspective, it takes no rocket science to conclude that the move could have been politically motivated. Besides, the process is costly. If not the Government then at least the ruling BJP comes within the arc of suspicion. Perhaps, that’s the reason Union Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, too, took a swipe at surveillance drills in the UPA era, saying they did not even spare former President Pranab Mukherjee. But whataboutery in no way dilutes the bigger picture that regardless of the political establishment of the day, each regime, both at home and around the world, is creating an Orwellian matrix, chipping away at free speech and thinking and tracking you down to scare you from exercising basic human rights. The democracy that social media has so far guaranteed is actually at most threat on its own turf.
According to the US-based Forrester report, India is in the list of countries where government surveillance has become a major concern from a data privacy perspective. Come January 2020, a new set of rules for platforms that allow people to send and share messages will mean that they can be monitored and intercepted in the name of national security and controlling misinformation. It now wants WhatsApp to use automated tools for messages so that, like China, it can take down specific messages and even trace them back to the original sender. It is this that has sparked fears of a witch-hunt. State-sponsored snooping may not affect the common man so much, except for mapping his lifestyle and behavioural choices, but clearly discourages the expression of a thinking mind. The Supreme Court had said that privacy is “the constitutional core of human dignity.” But given the targetted breaches, that dignity has been compromised.
Saturday, 02 November 2019 | Pioneer
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