Data ProtectionTechnology Law / Cyber Law

What’s up, WhatsApp?

The Indian Government has questioned the U.S messaging and one of the top used Social Media firm, WhatsApp when they couldn’t disclose the details of the spyware which was launched on Indian Citizens through the Israeli software ‘Pegasus’ to the Indian Authorities. The reports of snooping on Journalists, Activists, and Lawyers has also given fresh ammunition to target the Central Government. 

Human rights activist Bela Bhatia and Nihal Singh Rathod – a lawyer involved with the Bhima Koregaon case – have confirmed receiving alert by WhatsApp that their phones had been under state-of-the-art surveillance for a two-week period until May 2019.

10 activists have confirmed receiving messages from WhatsApp informing them about illegal spying. The other eight are Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Dalit rights activist Degree Prasad Chauhan, academic Anand Teltumbde, Shubhranshu Choudhary from Chhattisgarh, People’s Union for Democratic Rights member Ashish Gupta from Delhi, Delhi University assistant professor Saroj Giri, journalist Sidhant Sibal, and freelance journalist Rajeev Sharma. (Source: Scroll.in)

WhatsApp in a statement has said that they are in the process of suing the NSO Group, the Israeli Surveillance Firm that has built the technology which in the end aided the spies to hack into the phones of roughly around 1,400 users. ‘Pegasus’ was first found in the year 2016, when it got installed on a user’s phone after the user clicked on a malicious link. The link said something like “Click here to see what your favorite Bollywood Actor was doing yesterday.” The moment the user clicked on the link, Pegasus got installed on the device post which it gave full control of the phone to the hacker, including the ability to read the chats and copy data. 

The Former Minister of Information Technology, Shri Kapil Sibal has also requested the Apex Court to question the Central Government to file an affidavit clarifying if the surveillance is still continuing. The Central Government, on the other hand, has also issued a notice to WhatsApp seeking a response on the spyware issue by November 4, 2019. 

Following the recent spyware attack, I urge the users to get themselves acquainted with these four kinds of threats which are prevalent on WhatsApp:

  1. Hoax and Fake Messages: Major Social Media platforms have been criticized for allowing misinformation to be spread on their platforms. Most of us remember how Facebook was condemned for spreading misinformation throughout the U.S Presidential Elections of 2016. WhatsApp too was implicated in the widespread violence that occurred in India during 2017 and 2018 after messages containing details of fabricated child abductions were forwarded and spread across the platform. This resulted in the lynching of those accused of these fake crimes. Post these incidents, WhatsApp put a limit on forwarding messages.
  • Facebook Data Sharing: Often criticized for its market monopoly, when Facebook acquired the messaging platform- WhatsApp, Facebook assured the European Union that the two companies, and their data, would be kept separate. However, in 2016, WhatsApp updated its Privacy Policy that allowed the sharing of data from WhatsApp to Facebook. The move was highly criticized following which, WhatsApp allowed users to opt-out of this data-sharing arrangement. Now, they’ve removed this option.
  • Unencrypted Backups: The messages sent on WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted i.e only your device and the recipient device can decode them. Hence, there can be no interception of these messages during transmission. However, if you create backups of your messages on Android or iOS, a local backup gets created and the backup location contain the ‘unencrypted’ backups. Therefore, you are at the mercy of cloud providers to keep your data secured. 
  • WhatsApp Web Malware: WhatsApp allows its users to open a website, or download a desktop app, scan a code with the app on your phone and use WhatsApp on your computer. The Google Play Store on Android and the App Store on iOS are more carefully regulated and make it generally clear as to which app is the official one. However, this isn’t true for the internet at large. Hackers, Scammers, and Criminals have often taken advantage of this and have passed malicious software as WhatsApp desktop applications. In some cases, hackers were also able to install spyware due to this. Hence, to keep yourself safe, use apps and services from the official sources. 

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Nikhil Naren

An ardent lover of Intellectual Property and Information Technology Laws.

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