When a service you cannot live without is provided to you free of cost, then you are the product. In today’s information-driven world, data is the new age double-edged weapon; it can cut both ways. If Cambridge Analytica scam of 2018 was about illegal harvesting of Facebook users’ data for political marketing and user-specific campaign strategies, the latest snooping scandal using messaging platform WhatsApp is about unlawful surveillance and invasion of individual privacy, fraught with far more dangerous implications. The mobile phones of over 1,400 users in 20 countries, including several Indian political leaders, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists, were hacked by attackers using the spyware named Pegasus and their data and chats copied. The surveillance was carried out between April and May this year. The Snoopgate raises several disturbing questions over illegal hacking by unknown government agencies in flagrant disregard for the rule of law and contempt for fundamental right to privacy. WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, has more than 1.5 billion users worldwide including 400 million in India, its biggest market. The company has filed a lawsuit against an Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group whose spyware was used to target users of the messaging platform. Since the Israeli company has made it clear that the spyware has been sold only to “licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies” for use to combat the threat of terrorism, the key question that needs to be answered is who would benefit from snooping on political rivals, journalists and social activists and how any organisation, other than the government agencies, can afford buying the spying equipment, which costs millions of dollars.
Unfortunately, the NDA government’s response to both the scams has followed a familiar pattern: Vague assurances of a probe but no serious follow-up action. When the Cambridge Analytica storm hit the Indian shores in March last year, with reports suggesting that several parties had engaged the services of the data analytics and political consultancy company for political targeting, Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the issue would be probed thoroughly after getting relevant information from the British firm and also from Facebook. However, in the face of the mounting heat, he announced in the Rajya Sabha in July last year that the investigation would be handed over to the CBI. Nothing much has come out of the probe. On the latest Snoopgate, the Minister has merely asked WhatsApp to explain the “kind of breach and what it is doing” to safeguard privacy of millions of Indian citizens. Instead of trying to gloss over the issue, the government must undertake surveillance reforms to protect citizens against illegal hacking and reject the use of spyware in policing and security.