Facebook-owned WhatsApp on Thursday said Indian journalists and human rights activists were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using Israeli spyware Pegasus.
WhatsApp said it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, that is reportedly behind the technology that helped spies of these entities hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users.
These users span across four continents and included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.
While the messaging giant didn't disclose the details or the number of people affected in India, a WhatsApp spokesperson said, "Indian users were among those contacted by us this week."
Although WhatsApp didn't reveal the names, many of the victims came forward saying they were informed that they had been targeted.
Here's a list of activists known to have been affected by the spyware:
Nihal Singh Rathod
Nihal Singh Rathod, a human rights lawyer, is representing several of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Based in Nagpur, Rathod received a communication from John Scot-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto which is investigating the case, alerting him about the surveillance on October 14.
He was informed by the researcher that his phone was infected by spyware and his number was on the list of phones that were compromised.
Rathod started receiving suspicious WhatsApp calls in 2018. "The calls were from international numbers. I was receiving emails related to my cases with zip files attached but nothing would appear when I clicked on them. The researcher said that was also a modus operandi to transfer malware into my computer to keep track of my activities," said Rathod to newslaundry.com.
Bela Bhatia is a human rights activist based in Bastar in Chhattisgarh. She has been accused of being a 'Naxal sympathiser' for advocating Adivasi rights.
Bhatia said Citizen Lab advised her to change her phone and told her that she had been a target because of her work, as had other human rights activists and lawyers. “He [Citizen Lab member] clearly told me, ‘It is your own government which is doing this [surveillance]’,” Bhatia told Scroll.
Sidhant Sibal is the principal diplomatic and defence correspondent for Wion TV channel. Wion News confirmed in a tweet that Sibal's phone was targeted.
Anand Teltumbde, professor, writer and civil rights activist, received a call from Citizen Lab 10 days ago. Teltumbde was arrested last year, reportedly for his involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence.
Shubhranshu Choudhary is a former TV and radio producer for BBC's South Asia bureau. Eight years ago, he launched India's first community radio on mobile phone, CGnet Swara, which enable people in Chhattisgarh to report and listen to local stories. He suspects that he was targeted for his work in Chhattisgarh.
"Some weeks ago, I got a few missed calls. When I called back, they told me they were from Citizen Lab. I inquired about them from my contacts in digital security and they told me Citizen Lab was genuine and serious," Choudhary said. "I was told by Citizen Lab that using an Israeli spyware, phones were breached and that my number was on the list. Later, I received a message from WhatsApp regarding the same," Chaudhary said to newslaundry.com.
Other activists who came forward are Degree Prasad Chouhan, Rupali Jadhav and Shalini Gera.