Cong says WhatsApp alerted Priyanka about possible hacking, alleges govt involved in surveillance racket

(Eds: With more details, Incorporating related stories) New Delhi, Nov 3 (PTI) The Congress on Sunday claimed its leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had received a message from WhatsApp informing her that her phone was suspected to have been hacked and accused the government of being involved in a "surveillance racket", but the ruling BJP hit back saying the opposition party was imagining things that don't exist. As the political row over the issue intensified, Parliamentary standing committees on home affairs and information-technology headed by Congress leaders were also likely to take up the snooping allegations and seek details from top government officials, including the Home Secretary. "I want to tell that Priyanka Gandhi also received a similar message from WhatsApp around the same time," Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala told reporters on Sunday, responding to a question about NCP leader Praful Patel and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee receiving messages from the Facebook-owned messaging platform about the security breach. Taunting that BJPs new name should be Bhartiya Jasoos (snooping) Party', he alleged that the government is the "deployer and executor" of this "illegal and unconstitutional snooping and spying racket". BJP spokesperson Amit Malviya, however, trashed the Congress' allegations. "Havent we seen Congress imagining things that dont exist? Remember them claiming that Rahul Gandhis life was in danger when a green light, off a video camera, flashed on his face during a media briefing. Well, that is the level of their leaders credibility in public life," he said in a tweet. Describing the entire WhatsApp hacking episode as worrisome, Congress leader Anand Sharma, who chairs the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs, said this issue will be taken up at the panel's next meeting on November 15. The Home Secretary is scheduled to brief the panel on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir in the next meeting. "In that meeting this issue will also be discussed and we will seek details from the secretary," Sharma said. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who heads the parliamentary standing committee on information technology, said cyber security is a major issue and it will be seeking clarifications from the government, adding "we must not, at any price, become a surveillance state like China". Targeting the Modi Government, Surjewala said it now "stands exposed before the nation for its role and complicity in the illegal and unconstitutional surveillance racket". He also questioned the prime minister's "silence" over the whole issue. "The prime minister needs to come out and give an explanation. Why are all the stories being planted through sources in the media. Why is the prime minister silent," Surjewala said. AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi also hit out at the Centre and demanded that the government ask Israel how its technology firm listened to WhatsApp conversations of Indians. Addressing a public meeting on Saturday evening in Hyderabad the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president said the Israeli Ambassador should be summoned and asked about the matter. Surjewala also claimed that 'Pegasus' spyware can be exclusively sold to a government only. In fact, NSO (Israeli technology firm) has written to Citizen Lab' (Munk School of University of Toronto) stating clearly that, our product is licensed to government and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of investing and preventing crime and terror. It is, thus, clear that Indian government and its agencies bought the spyware, Surjewala alleged. "A sinister role is being adopted by the government. The question is do people in India have a right to privacy and the rule of law or is right to privacy a joke to be trashed by Modi government as per its whims and fancies. This is a subject of far-reaching consequences," Surjewala said. The party, however, did not say exactly when the Congress general secretary received the message. This comes after WhatsApp revealed last week that Indian journalists and human rights activists were among roughly 1,400 users globally spied upon by unnamed entities using Israeli spyware Pegasus. Sources, meanwhile, said WhatsApp had informed the Indian government in September that 121 Indian users were targeted by the Israeli spyware Pegasus, but IT ministry has contended that the information received from the messaging app earlier was inadequate and incomplete The messaging platform had said it sent special messages to all the affected users stating that it had "reason to believe they were impacted by this attack to directly inform them about what happened". Over the past few days, several social activists in India have come forward and said they had received communication from WhatsApp in this regard. Was BJP Government spying on its citizens and political leaders in the run-up to 2019 General Elections to Parliament of India? Who in Government of India purchased and deployed the illegal spyware Pegasus' from Israeli company NSO? Surjewala asked. He also asked that "since the government was aware of the illegal purchase and deployment of the Pegasus' spyware since April-May, 2019 then why did it chose to stay mum?" What action shall be taken against those guilty of purchasing and deploying the illegal spyware Pegasus'? Is the Government, including its Ministers and officers not criminally culpable and liable to be punished in terms of Sections 24, 25 and 26 of the Telegraph Act, 1885 and Section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000? he said. WhatsApp had said on Thursday that it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, which is reportedly behind the technology that helped unnamed entities' spies hack into phones of the messaging platform's users. These users span across four continents and include diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials. WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion users globally, of which India accounts for about 400 million. PTI UZM SKC JTR VVK RT