Indian Human Rights Lawyer Among WhatsApp Hacking Victims via Israeli ‘Pegasus’ Spyware


by Mohamed Elmaazi

The Israeli spyware software has become increasingly notorious after being implicated in many high profile hacks, including of the phone of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Nihalsing B Rathod is a criminal and constitutional lawyer practicing at the Bombay High Court in India. His focus includes aiming to make the justice system accessible to the underprivileged segments of his society. Between 2017 and 2019, Rathod received multiple WhatsApp video calls from an unknown caller, that would disconnect when he answered and didn’t respond when he called back. Rathod would later discover, following a phone call from a Canadian-based security firm called Citizen Lab, that his phone had been infected by the now infamous Pegasus software.

Pegasus, which is manufactured by a Israeli tech company NSO Group Technologies, is currently the subject of a lawsuit by social media giant Facebook in the United States, after it was revealed the spyware was gaining access mobile phone users’ WhatsApp conversations and possibly vacuuming up other forms of data, including audio and video via the device’s camera and microphone.

Sputnik: How did you discover that your phone had been hacked?

Nihalsing B Rathod: Well, the group video missed calls made me suspicious. But I did not have any resources to know what it was. I wrote a complaint to WhatsApp, however I never got any response. It was Citizen Lab, in Canada, which communicated to me about the infection. WhatsApp had authorised them to contact victims [of the Pegasus spyware]. [Citizen Lab have been tracking the Pegasus spyware since at least 2016]. Later on, I also received a message from WhatsApp which admitted to the Pegasus infection of my phone.

Sputnik: What exactly is it that the hackers gained access to and what’s the relevance of WhatsApp in this story?

Nihalsing B Rathod: I don’t know what the hacker took away or did with my phone. I have no resource to know what exactly they took. But based on my understanding, and with the information that I received from Citizen Lab, I realise they had real time information of my activities.  More than anything I am concerned with the legal strategies that were being developed by myself or were being discussed with my fellow lawyers in respect of the Elgar Parishad case [in which academics, artists, and activists were targeted for harassment and arrest following a conference about the state of human rights in India]. I have reason to believe [our legal drafts] were reaching state prosecutors much before they came out in court. The relevance of the Pegasus [spyware] infection to this story is with respect to [the recent] change in WhatsApp‘s [terms and conditions], which created unease among Indian users. So, I was trying to reach out to readers to get it across them that it’s not what’s written in the policy, but it’s more about what you don’t get to read [that should concern you].

Sputnik: Why do you think your phone was targeted?

Nihalsing B Rathod: I think one of the reason to target my phone is my defence of people who are considered as dissenters by the ruling [Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party]. Also my fighting against police excesses, fake encounters, fabricated cases against deprived class of society.

Sputnik: Have you discovered who was ultimately responsible for targeting you?

Nihalsing B Rathod: No I don’t know.

Sputnik: Are you taking any legal or other actions in respect of what has happened?

Nihalsing B Rathod: I have given thought to initiate legal action, however I do not feel I will get justice or impartial investigation given the current fascist government [in India]. I wish to join the suit in California. However, I need legal aid, or at least help at the local level, with which I will be able to take appropriate steps in that court.



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