Seema Azad is a freelance journalist and runs a bimonthly magazine called Dastak (knock) on Adivasi and land issues. She is also a national council member of PUCL (people’s union of civil liberties). Her number was also on the list of people in the WhatsApp Snoopgate. Following is part of a conversation with Seema and excepts from her Facebook page after the incident.
On 30th October, Seema received a message from WhatsApp that was different than other messages. It said that in May 2019, many phones were compromised through spyware using WhatsApp video call and her number is also on that list. She was told to go to the website of Toronto citizen cell and check out some security solutions.
Seema: The message had me worried but I shrugged the message thinking its a routine message from WhatsApp sent to all users to update to the latest version.
The next day, I saw a story in India express that Spyware called Pegasus made by an Israeli firm is used by Indian security agencies to spy on people. The list includes around 1400 people around the world, including lawyers, journalists, human rights activists using this spyware. They all had received a message from Whatsapp. After reading that report I felt that I should have taken that message seriously. I never thought that my name would be on the list of 1400 people. Calls from international numbers kept on coming on WhatsApp for around 2-3 months, but it stopped around 4 months ago. When I checked on true caller the numbers showed to be originating from Sweden or Switzerland.
Q- What was your first reaction?
Seema-I am not surprised by the fact that that government secret service agencies spy on people. I use the smartphone very carefully. But the truth is no matter how much you try to secure your privacy settings, you cannot stop yourself from getting spied on.
Many years ago Julian Assange has said: “ Smart Phone in your bedroom is like a cannon in your room, it can always be used against you”.
If not the government, a private agency will do it.
I am surprised that out of 1400 people on that list and 24 Indians, my name is there. I write against the government but I never thought that I could be spied on. I am surprised state government considers me such a threat. Now I feel that my name has come, but other people are also being spied upon. I feel activists should work on these issues and work on some antidote to such spy attacks.
Those all who have received the call from Toronto citizen cell are told that it is indeed their government that is spying on them.
Q: Should it worry all of us? and why?
Seema: What I find more surprising is that this is not an issue for common people. For them, secret agencies going through your phone is not an invasion of privacy but a normal thing. People did not even oppose the linking of AADHAR with every personal document. Linking of the phone with AADHAR has made it even easier to spy on people. That is also the reason we oppose AADHAR.
Many of my friends who are not activists have many times argued with me that “ For security reasons the government has the right to know everything about us, there is nothing wrong with it…Those who do wrong are the ones who are worried.” I ask them they should make their family infighting between mother-in-law and daughter- in law also public. When the daughter in law calls police why do they bribe police and send them away, they should also make this public. My friend might not have agreed but he became quiet after this.
So I want to tell such people that right to privacy is our fundamental right, In the name of security you cannot look into our home and our phones. This is an abuse of our fundamental right. It is our backward mentality that we don’t find anything wrong in giving up our privacy for security.
The government will not find anything suspicious on my phone. But who gave the government the right to snoop into my personal photos, personal documents, and emails. The spyware can look into all activities in the room that the phone is in. We do not let people to tell our private stuff to strangers but because of our regressive mentality and ignorance, we have let government and private agencies enter not just our home but our bedrooms and bathrooms. Through targeted advertising, social media is also subconsciously forcing us to buy our favorite products.
Q- Do you feel that the government has done this snooping as part of surveillance or is there a more sinister operation behind this?
Seema: The government will not find anything suspicious on my phone. But what is worrisome is what Nihal Singh Rathod has said. It’s not just spying, but they can implant anything in your hard disk. As we know, many of the activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case are also on this list.
Nihal Singh Rathod, Nagpur based lawyer who represents several of the accused in Bhima Koregaon case has said something very damning after the expose –
“We have consistently been saying that many of the so-called ‘letters’ obtained by the police have been planted on the hard-drives of activists, Now it is clear just how they planted these files on Mr. Gadling’s computer.”
This is more worrisome for me if they have implanted something in the hard disks that is a big risk for everyone. Anyone can be implicated and arrested.
Q: Most names on the list are people who are accused in Bhima Koregaon case or are Dalit and Adivasi activists/journalists/lawyers? What do you think of that?
Seema: It looks like the government is most afraid of people who are working on Dalit and Adivasi rights because it is these people who can uproot their Manuwadi regime. It shows that these people are doing some real work that the government is threatened by them.
And this is another step in the series of how the state is troubling many Dalit/ Adivasi and minority activists as we saw in the case of Chalo Una, Bhima Koregaon’s case, Sudha Bhardwaj, Anand Teltumbde arrests and harassment. They are targeting those people who can break the myth of Hindu unity and Hindu versus Muslim binary that the state is pushing towards people.
Q) As of now the government has brushed the issue and has, in turn, questioned WhatsApp on this breach. In the coming days, it is quite possible that some more information that proves that it is indeed Indian government that was spying on these people. What do you think the government will do?
There is one old supreme court judgment that says that terrorists (in the eyes of the government) don’t have privacy. Their phone can be decrypted and we want to know what is the source of malware, there is no problem with it. So, It seems like an atmosphere is being created where in some time the government may say that we have done in the past and we will do in the future as well. And spying on people will be normalised like this.
Even if it has come out in the open, it has not hurt the government at all. It has created chaos, an atmosphere of fear, which is beneficial for the government. It is not just us who is worried about being spied but there is also a fear just by association, people who are related to us, work with us might also be a target of such spying in the future. It has already sown division and doubt in people’s minds. I also got that feeling in all the calls I received since the incident.
NSO also told that they sell the app to government agencies and not private entities. Also the kind of expenditure that this kind of exercise demands is not possible for any private entity, only government machinery can undertake such a venture. It is told that the cost of spying for 1400 people is 6454 crore rupees, out of which the virus installation itself costs 4900 crores. There is no doubt that this is done by the government, who else will benefit from this? Fascist governments are becoming so scared that to control the population, they are putting more and more surveillance.
In this case, one should not dismiss Facebook and WhatsApp. This time they are not involved but we all know how much they respect the private data of its users. Some months ago Facebook was accused of not just keeping personal data of its users but also selling it to private buyers. In a congressional question hour, Mark Zuckerberg could not give a satisfactory reply to it. In the past, Facebook has shared Kashmir ́s Burhan Wani ́s information with security agencies which led to his killing by security forces. The question is not who Burhan Wani was but that Is facebook not cheating us by giving information about one of its customers. If you don’t find sharing of Burhan Wani information wrong then there shouldn’t be anything wrong with the leaking of your personal data. This shows that all forms of media are not with us but with the tyrannical government.
Now that Whatsapp snoopgate has come out, we should not think that only these people are the target, in reality, the whole country is in an invisible prison who are spied on by many proxy mediums. If you speak against the government, you are a target.
It took me some time to reflect on what has happened. It’s not just an attack on our phones it is an attack on our mind. It is to alienate and put stress on us. This expose can cause chaos in society and can be used to silence many voices, we should be aware of it.
I want to tell the secret Intelligence agencies that- See , here I am, I am still writing and still fighting. I will speak and write against this spying. Privacy is our constitutional right, those who abuse it are the culprits. We need to join hands against this abuse, not be doubtful or to alienate ourselves.