Big Brother is Watching you

Snooping on Social Media and its alleged manipulation has invoked terrifying visions of an Orwellian State where there are no secrets. Will we all eventually live in an Orwellian dystopia?

Background 

The end to end encrypted conversation in WhatsApp has been a thorn on the sides of states' security apparatus which typically views every user as potentially subversive. Israelis have been able to develop sophisticated spyware to infiltrate all types of operating systems, allegedly to disrupt terrorist plots.

The snooping of smartphone apps has also been addressed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court which has enquired in a case related to the phone tapping of a police officer and his family in Chhattisgarh “whether any such thing as privacy has been left in the country”.

India is a major market for WhatsApp with over 400 million active users.

Analysis

Since the Pegasus spyware breach came to light, the Indian government and Facebook-owned WhatsApp have been contending their own efforts to protect citizen privacy issues.

WhatsApp claimed that it had informed the Indian government in May and September 2019 regarding the compromise of smartphone devices of 121 users in India which included journalists, activists and academia. It is alleged that in many cases, incriminating files/ contents may have been added to individual accounts to show culpability in anti-state activities.  “We have already contacted the users directly we have reasons to believe were targeted. Users can contact us within the app and we will respond directly,” WhatsApp spokesperson said while speaking to the press.

It is reported that the Israeli government ensures that the sale of this kind of intrusive software takes place only to government agencies to limit its misuse by non-state actors.

In the crosshairs of this cyber intrusion/ manipulation were a galaxy of activists, journalists and social thinkers.  To name a few-Shalini Gera- Chhattisgarh-based activist, Nihalsing Rathod- Nagpur-based lawyer, Bela Bhatia- Adivasi rights activist, Degree Prasad Chauhan- activist, Anand Teltumbde- academic and writer on Dalit issues, Shubhranshu Choudhary- former BBC journalist, Ankit Grewal- Chandigarh-based lawyer, Ashish Gupta-Delhi-based activist, Seema Azad- activist, Vivek Sundara- social and environmental activist, Saroj Giri- assistant professor at Delhi University, Sidhant Sibal- journalist, Rajeev Sharma- strategic analyst and columnist, Rupali Jadhav-activist, Santosh Bhartiya-veteran journalist and former MP.

Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and the Ministry of Home Affairs have expressed concern about privacy breaches. He also hinted that this issue is being politicised and an attempt is being made to malign the Government. A Congress-led group of opposition parties are expected to write to President Ram Nath Kovind to order a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the WhatsApp snooping scandal. 

After Financial Times had reported of its vulnerability, WhatsApp raced to fix the issue that enabled attackers to inject the spyware through WhatsApp call. "We agree with the government of India it's critical that together we do all we can to protect users from hackers attempting to weaken security. WhatsApp remains committed to the protection of all user messages through the product we provide," it said. 

While there are accusations against state agencies for being responsible for violating the cyber privacy of private citizens, the state-owned Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plants own systems were breached by malware. This was confirmed by NPCIL, the holding public sector company.

Assessment 

  • The Apex Court of India has recognised that the constitutional rights granted to an Indian citizen includes the fundamental right to privacy. While surveillance and phone tapping is a recognised tool of law enforcement agencies to catch terrorists and criminals, albeit, with judicial sanction under judicial scrutiny,  the blatant unauthorised use of snooping tools to intrude into private messages and plant false messages is a clear violation of the said fundamental right and amounts to a felony.
  • Vulnerable groups often trust end to end encryption technology to remain secure online. Sophisticated surveillance technologies are fully capable of violating the basic human right to privacy and free speech. More worrying is the ability of unknown agencies, state-backed or otherwise,  to plant incriminating material which can lead to incarceration of innocents.
  •  As long as such intrusive products are marketed without proper control and oversight, the rights and safety of people are at risk, more so if the state itself starts abusing them against its own citizens.
  • Public outcry and pressure groups need to be formed by the civil society to combat this menace as states cannot be trusted if, as alleged, they are the primary user. 
  • As the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant breach has shown, there are tremendous vulnerabilities in India’s critical infrastructure. The government would be well advised to focus more on creating a strong counter-cyber defence shield to safeguard such vital national infra.

Image Courtesy: Times of India 

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