The government has expressed concern over WhatsApp not disclosing Pegasus hacking incident during its multiple rounds of discussions with the Centre since June, according to sources.
A senior government functionary, who did not wish to be named, questioned whether this was a rearguard action by WhatsApp to prevent the government from bringing measures on traceability and accountability.
The government is also questioning the timing of the disclosure of the hacking incident, particularly against the backdrop of the Centre seeking three months’ time from the Supreme Court to come up with rules to curb misuse of social media in the country.
Sources said that the government would insist on traceability of the source of malicious messages and not content.
Facebook-owned WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion users globally, of which India alone accounts for about 400 million.
In the past too, WhatsApp has drawn flak from the Indian government on the platform being misused for spreading misinformation that led to incidents of mob lynching.
The government has categorically told WhatsApp that it wants the platform to bring in a mechanism to enable tracing of the originator of messages, a demand that WhatsApp has resisted citing privacy issues.
The government is also working on tightening rules of social media companies in India that will increase the accountability of such platforms.
On Thursday, WhatsApp had said Indian journalists and human rights activists were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using an Israeli spyware Pegasus, leading to a furore over breach of citizens’ privacy.
Following the disclosure by WhatsApp, the Indian government had asked the messaging platform to explain the matter and list out the measures that have been taken by it to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indians. According to sources, the company has been asked to submit its response by November 4.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp said it has taken a “strong action” in the incident and supports the Indian government’s stand on the need to safeguard the privacy of all citizens.
The company said it will reply to the Indian government.
“We agree with the government of India’s strong statement about the need to safeguard the privacy of all Indian citizens. That is why we’ve taken this strong action to hold cyber attackers accountable and why WhatsApp is so committed to the protection of all user messages through the product we provide,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said.
The spokesperson, however, did not comment on whether WhatsApp has submitted its response to the government’s query.
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, including diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.
However, it did not say on whose behest the phones of journalists and activists across the world were targeted.
Refusing to divulge identities or the exact number of those targeted in India, WhatsApp had said in May, it had stopped a highly sophisticated cyberattack that exploited its video calling system to send malware to its users.
The mobile messaging giant said it had sent a special WhatsApp message to about 1,400 users that it has “reason to believe were impacted by this attack to directly inform them about what happened”.
While the messaging giant did not disclose the details or the number of people affected in India, the company confirmed that Indian users were among those contacted by the company.
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