WhatsApp Hacking: Mamata says her messages were swooped upon, asks Modi to 'take care of it'

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Saturday alleged that she had evidence that the Centre was tapping her phones and asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to "take care" of the issue.

"It is a fact that Israel NSO has supplied this machine to the government. My phone was tapped and I know about it as I have the evidence with me," she told reporters here.

Reacting to the recent reports of WhatsApp admitting to a breach of privacy of users in India who were target of surveillance by operators using spyware Pegasus of Israeli company NSO, the West Bengal chief minister said that the central government was spying on politicians, media persons, lawyers, social activists and other important personalities.

"Government is using this Israel NSO to watch the activities of politicians, media persons, lawyers and judges, the IAS, IPS officers, social activists, and other important personalities. This is wrong you cannot capture the privacy. Whatsapp was safe but even now it listens to your talk and your messages are no longer safe. So no landline, mobile phones, and Whatsapp messages are safe. There is spying going on." "When government works it has to give instructions to its officials and sometimes this work is done after office hours but now when our messages are recorded then how our government will be able to give instructions to officials. I request the Prime Minister to take care of this issue," she said.

Mamata Banerjee alleged that the Centre and more than one state government was aware of the security breach.

"The government has done that and one or two state governments are involved in this. I cannot give the names right now but I know that state governments have also done this," the West Bengal chief minister said.

Mamata Banerjee said that she has heard that "the machine can be record messages and calls within 10 km range." On being asked whether she will go for a Supreme Court-monitored probe, she said, "We have respect for the Supreme Court. When everything is lost then justice comes from the top court, let us hope so."

A report in HT earlier claimed that Rajya Sabha MP Praful Patel, and journalist and former Lok Sabha MP Santosh Bharatiya were among those targeted for surveillance.

On October 31, Facebook-owned WhatsApp had said Indian journalists and human rights activists were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using an Israeli spyware Peagasus.

WhatsApp had said it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, that is reportedly behind the technology that helped unnamed entities' spies hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users spanning across four continents and included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.

The Congress on Saturday upped the ante against the Narendra Modi government on recent accusations of public surveillance through WhatsApp questioning which department purchased the Israeli software Pegasus and who gave allowed it to spy on journalists and activists.

"Israeli NSO sold spyware Pegasus only to governments. Before WhatsApp answers, our government must tell us: Which wing of government purchased Pegasus, at what price, who handled its operations, who gave instructions for snooping and which other platforms are compromised," senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal tweeted.

Sibal's remarks came a day after the government, under fire from journalists and the Opposition, demanded a clarification from WhatsApp and questioned why it had kept the information about spying on Indian citizens hidden from the Indian authorities despite recent meetings with the company CEO.

In a statement on Friday, Facebook-owned WhatsApp said it agrees with the strong demand made by the Indian government to explain the kind of breach to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens. It also claimed that it had informed the Indian government about the 'security issue' in May.

"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," the WhatsApp statement said.

However, the government countered the WhatsApp claims saying that the information provided was "pure technical jargon".

Government sources said WhatsApp had given information to CERT-IN, a government agency in May, but without any mention of Pegasus or the extent of the breach. It also insisted that the information shared was only about a technical vulnerability and had nothing to do with the fact that privacy of Indian users had been compromised.

To back its claim, a screenshot of the information shared with CERT-IN by WhatsApp was circulated by government sources.

WhatsApp snooping of human rights activists and journalists in India via an Israeli spyware called Pegasus has snowballed into a major political controversy. Pegasus allegedly exploited WhatsApp's video calling system by installing the spyware via giving missed calls to snoop on 1,400 select users globally, including nearly 30-40 people in India.

The owner of Pegasus, Israel-based NSO Group, limits the sale of the spyware to state intelligence agencies and others as it has the ability to collect intimate data from a target device. Pegasus software can be installed on devices as "exploit links". The Indian government has denied purchasing or planning to buy Pegasus from NSO Group.

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