Interview with Anand Teltumbde: Does the Government Snoop on Activists Using Whatsapp?
An interview with Anand Teltumbde, who was among the more than 20 Indians, including human rights activists and journalists, targeted by spyware Pegasus, developed by Israel’s NSO Group.
Civil rights activist, writer and academic Anand Teltumbde is among the more than 20 Indians, including human rights activists and journalists, who were targeted by spyware Pegasus, developed by Israel’s NSO Group.
WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is now suing NSO. But the Israeli firm says it provides its technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime. While it is not clear who funded the snooping, the government of India denied any involvement and asked WhatsApp for an explanation.
Teltumbde has held positions such as a director of Bharat Petroleum, CEO of Petronet India Limited, and teacher at Indian Institute of Management and Ghoragpur IIT and Goa Institute of Technologies. He is also known as a data Analyst, human rights Activist and political thinker. He was arrested last year, reportedly for his alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence.
Here are excerpts from an email interview with Asiaville:
Why are you being targeted?
It is a well-known fact that I am implicated in the infamous Bhima Koregaon case. Most people who are targeted are connected some ways with that case. Unfortunately, the government stoops so low as to target innocent people who contributed so much for the betterment of this country. Such a snooping is so sinister that it will not be done even in the worst dictatorship. I am human rights defender as the General Secretary of Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights and have been performing the role of a public intellectual, which means necessarily exposing negatives in the government policies to the people. To the present regime, this has been anathema. It has created a false case and no wit has stooped to such a mean level.
The incident of spying on journalists and human rights activists in a democratic country shows how "someone" views them as a threat rather than a strengthening structure. Who do you suspect as the one behind this snooping incident?
The human rights defender and public intellectualism is the greatest service to the nation in a democratic country. But this regime has created a narrative that reverses these scales and terms these people anti-national incarcerates in jails. There is no doubt about who could be behind this snooping. The NSO, the Israeli company that makes this dangerous spyware has come out in public saying that it only licenses it to the governments.
BJP's IT cell head Amit Malviya has questioned the timing of these complaints-- that 'if WhatsApp did inform people about the security breach, why wasn't the incident reported earlier'. How do you respond?
No. WhatsApp did not report the security breach earlier. As a matter of fact, if the Citizens Lab hadn't taken initiatives to call up the targeted people and alerted them, we would not have even come to know of the menace. Even now that it has been exposed, what action the government is taking? It has only been dodging the issue as to any other.
As a user who was targetted, do you think Whatsapp has shown enough transparency in this issue in explaining to you what actually happened?
No, WhatsApp message does not provide many details. One thing, however, that needs to be appreciated is that it must have been a very smart product that seats into the operating system of the phone during a video call or some such application without it being acknowledged by the receiver. What I learnt is that Citizens Lab is working with WhatsApp to figure out technicality of the process. And it might be too early for WhatsApp to explain it.
Economic Times has quoted a government official suspecting the timing of lawsuit filed by Whatsapp against NSO. He thinks it’s too much of a coincidence that the lawsuit comes at a time when the government is insisting on traceability. How do you view this situation?
I do not know the legal complexity of the lawsuit. What I know for sure is that the government should come out with a cogent explanation of its criminality.
One has to assume that "Big Brother is Watching You". How much more concerned are you about your privacy?
This government has rendered us defenceless. Taking control of your phone, as enabled by this spyware has far-reaching implications. It not only means that they listen to you, see whatever you are doing with whom but also can plant any content into your accounts, as they did in the Bhima-Koregaon case. It is far more dangerous that the phone tapping kind of snooping that the government has been doing with impunity for years.