In response to a question about WhatsApp hacking in parliament, the Indian home affairs Minister revealed the apparently limitless snooping power at his disposal.
- Whether the Government does tapping of WhatsApp calls and messages and if so, the details thereof;
- The protocol being followed in getting permissions before tapping WhatsApp calls and messages;
- Whether it is similar to that of mobile phones/telephones;
- Whether the Government uses Pegasus software of Israel for this purpose;
- Whether the Government does tapping of calls and messages of other platforms like Facebook Messenger, Viber, Google and similar platforms and if so, the details thereof.
While it didn’t address each point individually the Indian home affairs Minister, Kishan Reddy, answered with the following statement:
Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 empowers the Central Government or a State Government to intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted, any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.
There followed some vague stuff about government agencies not having blanket permission to hack electronic communications and devices, and that they would have to ask really nicely before they were allowed to do what they want. But the long and short of it is that anything you say or do in India can be viewed by the government whenever it fancies it.
Pegasus software refers to spyware made by NSO Group, which WhatsApp has openly accused of hacking its service. The government response didn’t address that question at all but it’s beyond question that there is a growing industry around the production of malware designed to help governments spy on their citizens.
Five years ago the India based Software Law and Freedom Centre said the Indian government was issuing over 100,000 telephone interception orders per year. It seems safe to assume that number has grown considerably since then and when you factor in all the other agencies that have a piece of this action you’re looking at a lot of state spying.
In India, as elsewhere, claimed interference in the electoral process, be that through misinformation or more sinister means, is being used as the justification for state interference in private matters. Any time a government claims it needs to spy in its citizens in the name of safety, the correct response is to ask whose safety it has in mind.