Jayachandran/Mint
Jayachandran/Mint

Smart user’s guide to the snooping game

The WhatsApp hack has put the spotlight on surveillance abuse in India. Here’s how you can try to stay ahead

NEW DELHI : In July 2015, when WikiLeaks published internal email records of Hacking Team, an Italian surveillance vendor, it gave a rare peek into the shopping basket of India’s intelligence agencies. One agency wanted to “infect the mobile phones or SIM cards of all the subscribers in sensitive areas to continuously track their location with high accuracy", another was looking for a “one-click solution to infect any type of platforms, models, etc. by just sending an SMS, without knowing any background about his target (sic)".

The agencies were enquiring about the Remote Control System (RCS), Hacking Team’s flagship surveillance product. It is sold exclusively to intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and is designed to remotely monitor targets: it could copy files, record Skype calls, read emails and instant messages, capture typed passwords, and turn on a device’s webcam and microphone to spy on the user.

Emails reviewed by Mint show that a multitude of Indian agencies were secretly negotiating—either directly but mostly through a third-party contractor—with the Italian firm. It is, however, unclear whether the deals went through or not.

The spying features of RCS are strikingly similar to recent revelations about Pegasus, the spyware built by Israeli cybersecurity company NSO Group that targeted WhatsApp users and facilitated the complete takeover of the device to capture all its activity. Facebook-owned WhatsApp sued the company for installing surveillance malware on the phones of 1,400 users across four continents, including at least two dozen Indians activists, journalists, lawyers and academics.

Like Hacking Team, NSO Group claims it only sells software to government authorities. While the Indian government hasn’t acknowledged any transaction with NSO Group, the 2015 email dump suggests this is standard practice. “The agencies have been asking around for products that allow for intercepting WhatsApp messages since at least 2016," a senior security researcher who works closely with Indian intelligence agencies told Mint on condition of anonymity.

The WhatsApp hack has once again brought to light the concerns over surveillance abuse in India. The debate is often framed as a trade-off between user privacy and national security. Officials say there are processes in place to check misuse of power, but as the WhatsApp episode highlights, it’s not just suspected terrorists but civil rights activists who are often at the receiving end of intrusive state surveillance.

Actually, what we know about the surveillance regime in India is just the tip of the iceberg. Even without the deployment of expensive solutions like Pegasus to hack into your device, the government has ample sources to learn about your whereabouts from the data trails you leave behind. Here’s how you can try to stay ahead of the snooping game.

Encryption is important, but it’s not the end of the game. Mobile phones are perennially giving away our location to telecom firms through the signals they broadcast
Encryption is important, but it’s not the end of the game. Mobile phones are perennially giving away our location to telecom firms through the signals they broadcast

Fallacies about encryption

Traditionally, surveillance is imagined as law enforcement listening to telephonic conversations or reading text messages of targets. In the cyber age, this extends to internet traffic: the state wants similar capabilities for digital communication including emails, instant messaging and VoIP calls (like Skype).

Here, encryption protects your information. Through publicly known mathematical algorithms, computer programs can turn a plain text (“I will meet you at Punjabi Bagh, 8pm") into a cipher text through a special key. Only those having access to the key can decrypt the information to infer the meaning; for the rest it’s gibberish. WhatsApp for instance is end-to-end encrypted, meaning only the sender and receiver can read the content.

That’s why the Indian government wants WhatsApp to trace the origin of a message flagged as unlawful by law enforcement, a demand the American company says it can’t deliver as WhatsApp itself doesn’t have access to the special key to decrypt the information.

Encryption is important, and it provides some degree of protection from mass surveillance. But it’s not the end of the game: a malware attack on your mobile phone can take control of your device and will make your communications naked to the attacker’s eyes.

The power of malware

Imagine a castle with hundreds of doors. Dozens of security guards are deployed at every gate to protect the fort. You are sure no one can enter the castle. But one small entrance in an obscure corner is unknown and unprotected. The opponent, however, discovers it first and uses the route to enter the castle, breaching security.

In cybersecurity parlance, if the castle is your device or software, that unknown gate is a “zero-day vulnerability", meaning you have zero days to protect your system if the attacker knows about a vulnerability—a security weakness unintentionally designed in a piece of software—before you do. This is exactly what happened in the case of the latest hack. Pegasus exploited an unknown security vulnerability to remotely instal spyware on the target’s device.

Zero-day exploits are traded in the market. Many companies have “bug bounty programs" where security experts are paid to report bugs in their products, a smart way to outsource security. Attackers have many ways to infect the target vulnerabilities with malware. First, sending infected PDF files or images sent as email attachments: if downloaded and opened, you inadvertently infect your own computer. Most of these are well-targeted campaigns to make the content look appealing enough for you to trust.

Then, just visiting a compromised Web page could instal dangerous software on your device, without you downloading any attachment or giving additional permission. Victims may come across such links through social media posts or email links. This attack usually takes advantage of a security flaw in the Web browser and aims to auto-run the exploit code to take over the device.

As a special case of this attack, a set of niche but popular websites that a target group regularly visits are infected with malware. When users visit the website next time, it is ready to infect the target group with malware. In September, TechCrunch reported that “a number of malicious websites used to hack into iPhones over a two-year period were targeting Uyghur Muslims", most of whom live in China’s Xinjiang state.

How do you protect yourself from malware attacks? If an attacker gets hold of a zero-day, you barely have any option. But as a precaution, you should ensure you use the latest version of the software. Outdated software is like a castle with open doors known to everyone but without any guards. Still, most people don’t: According to the latest data from analytics firm StatCounter, only 33% of Indian smartphones are running the latest version of Android.

Moreover, cheaper smartphones, which ship with their own customized version of the Android operating system, are late to ship updates, leaving their users vulnerable to known attacks (See graphic for more ways to counter snooping).

‘M’ stands for metadata

Most people imagine government surveillance in terms of content: tapping phone calls to listen to conversations, ability to read the complete text of emails and messages. But more is happening under the hood: even without knowing the details of content, a lot can be inferred about one’s whereabouts.

Just by the act of using a service, be it making a call or browsing the internet, we leave a valuable trail of data with telecom companies and internet service providers (ISPs): it includes call detail records (whom did you speak with, when and for how long), the location and IMEI number (which uniquely identifies a wireless phone or device) of both the caller and recipient, and the Web browsing history.

This is called “metadata", everything except the content of the communication, and can be far more revelatory than most people imagine. Connect the dots and it provides an intimate lens into a person’s life.

Sample what companies and governments can infer from metadata: they know you called a phone sex line in the night but don’t know what you talked about; they know the people you speak with every day, once in a month or once in a year, revealing your close and distant contacts; they know you called a suicide prevention hotline but the topic is not known; they know if an informant is repeatedly talking to a human rights activist or journalist, but don’t know what is being revealed; they know a girl called a gynaecologist, spoke for a half hour, then called a man whom she often speaks with late in the night, and then called the local abortion clinic’s number later that day; they know the websites you visit and time you spend looking at the content (no, incognito mode doesn’t protect you from the eyes of the ISP).

“The contents of calls are far more difficult to analyze in an automated fashion due to their unstructured nature," Edward Felten, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton, explained in an affidavit filed by American Civil Liberties Union challenging the legality of the National Security Agency’s mass collection of Americans’ phone records. “A group’s metadata can reveal intricacies of social, political, and religious associations," he wrote, adding: “Given limited analytical resources, analyzing metadata is often a far more powerful analytical strategy than investigating content."

Location, location, location

Moreover, mobile phones are perennially giving away our location to the telecom companies through the signals they broadcast. By observing the signal strength that different towers receive from a particular subscriber’s mobile phone, operators can calculate where that phone must be located.

Location tracking is more than just knowing where you are at a given point in time: it “could be used to try to find out whether certain people are in a romantic relationship, to find out who attended a particular meeting or who was at a particular protest, or to try and identify a journalist’s confidential source", the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained in a blog post.

In India, telecom licences require operators to provide direct access to all communication data and content to authorities even without a warrant. In 2009, the government announced it was building a Central Monitoring System that will provide it “centralized access to the country’s telecommunications network and facilitate direct monitoring of phone calls, text messages, and Internet use by government agencies, bypassing service providers", the Human Rights Watch noted in 2013.

There is not much you can do to protect metadata surveillance, especially for calling and location tracking data. You can use a VPN (virtual private network) service to protect your browsing activity from the ISP or Tor browser for anonymous browsing, but both have their limitations.

The lack of law

The general saying that the law lags technological innovation by at least a generation does not apply to India. The country has no laws governing mass surveillance. For targeted interception, there are two main Acts governing the legal provisions for surveillance in India. First, the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, which allows for the interception of telephonic calls and messages. Second, the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, which has provisions to intercept digital information including data stored on a computer, internet traffic and other data flows.

There is one key difference between the two Acts: The grounds under the IT Act are wider and lack some of the safeguards under the Indian Telegraph Act. Under the latter, there should be a condition of a “public emergency" or “interest of public safety" for intercepting the information. There is no such requirement under the IT Act, which makes it more powerful.

As India heads towards framing laws to protect user data and privacy, it remains to be seen if the state will curb its own powers of illegitimate surveillance to snoop on its citizens.

In conclusion

The truth is, cyberspace warfare is asymmetrically skewed towards the attacker, who needs to take advantage of just one weakness to exploit you. Defenders need to protect everything.

Which is why, when framing a digital security plan, it is not useful to ask a question like “whether X technology is safe or not". Merely using Signal (a highly recommended encrypted instant messaging app) or Tor (that allows anonymous Web browsing) is not the solution. The recommended approach is to define what you are protecting, from whom, how much convenience you are willing to trade-off and then take specific security steps for clearly defined goals.

By adopting best practices to be secure online and following a plan, you can make it difficult for anyone to spy on you. But in the extreme case, if a nation-state really wants to target you, it probably can: your efforts will introduce roadblocks, make it financially more expensive to snoop on you, but nothing can offer a guarantee of complete privacy.

Samarth Bansal is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. He writes about technology, politics and policy.

Close