Pegasus spyware controversy takes a new turn with senior government officials reportedly raising concerns over WhatsApp's dead silence on hacking incidents in spite of multiple rounds of discussion with the centre since June. WhatsApp on Thursday revealed 1,400 Indians including journalists and human rights activists fell prey to WhatsApp spying by unknown entities. While the attack was stopped and impacted users were informed about the incident in May, WhatsApp maintained a pin drop silence over the impact on Indian users, until this week when Facebook finally filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, an Israeli company behind the spyware.
Pegasus is developed by an Israeli software company NSO Group. Once activated (in this incident, by exploiting a vulnerability in video calling), Pegasus could read text messages, track calls, collect passwords, trace the phone location from WhatsApp and certain other apps as well. NSO Group maintains its sole purpose is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to "help them fight terrorism and serious crime."
India plans to revise existing policies to regulate social media apps and online services on the grounds of 'unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity.' In its affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) is in favour of holding online platforms like TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, among others accountable for activities done by their users. These new rules will also impose additional obligations on companies to enable tracing out the originator of the content in question, within 72 hours of such requests made by any government agency.
Facebook has already filed a case in India, preventing government agencies from forcing WhatsApp to break its end-to-end encryption. However, the entire Pegasus spyware fiasco may weaken Facebook's case.
A senior government official who did not wish to be named questioned whether WhatsApp's silence on the hacking incident had anything to do with its plans to prevent the authorities from enforcing measures on traceability and accountability. The government is also questioning the timing of WhatsApp's disclosure of the hacking incident, particularly against the backdrop of the Centre seeking three months from the Supreme Court to come up with rules to curb misuse of social media in the country.
It remains to be seen how the Pegasus spyware incident affects WhatsApp's plans to launch its UPI-enabled payments system in the country. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg remains hopeful about being able to launch WhatsApp Pay in India soon, that possibility now seems out of question given the Pegasus spyware scare among Indians.
WhatsApp's UPI-based payment service is awaiting regulatory approval from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). WhatsApp had earlier said it hopes to roll out full-fledged payment services in India later this year. Once launched, WhatsApp payments will compete with the likes of Paytm, Google Pay and PhonePe.
(With agency inputs)