Amid growing criticism over messaging app WhatsApp's revelation that Indian journalists and human rights activists were among users targetted by Israeli spyware, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Thursday said the "attempts to malign the government of India for the reported breach are completely misleading".
"Some statements have appeared based on reports in media, regarding breach of privacy of Indian citizens on WhatsApp," a home ministry official was quoted as saying by news agency PTI.
The official said the central government is committed to protecting the fundamental rights of citizens, including the right to privacy.
"It is clarified that the government of India operates strictly as per provisions of law and laid down protocols. There are adequate safeguards to ensure that no innocent citizen is harassed or his privacy breached," the official said.
WhatsApp has said that Indian scribes and activists were among those globally spied upon by unnamed entities using an Israeli spyware Pegasus.
The Facebook-owned app said it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, that is reportedly behind the technology that helped unnamed entities' spies to hack into phones of roughly 1,400 users.
These users span across four continents and included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials. However, it did not say on whose behest the phones of journalists and activists across the world were snooped on.
The Information Technology (IT) ministry has sought a detailed response from WhatsApp on the issue and asked the platform to submit its reply by November 4.
IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had, earlier in the day, said the government had asked WhatsApp to explain the breach and list-out measures that have been taken to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indians.
He asserted that government agencies have a "well-established protocol for an interception which includes sanction and supervision from highly ranked officials in central and state governments, for clear stated reasons in national interest".
"The Government of India is concerned over the breach of privacy of citizens of India on the messaging platform WhatsApp. We have asked WhatsApp to explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens," Prasad said.
Hitting out at the Opposition, Prasad said those trying to make political gain out of it should be reminded of bugging incidents in the office of former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee during the UPA regime, as also spying over then Army Chief General V K Singh.
"Those trying to make political capital out of it need to be gently reminded about the bugging incident in the office of the then eminent Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee during UPA regime. Also a gentle reminder of the spying over the then Army Chief Gen V. K. Singh," Prasad said.
Earlier on Thursday, the Congress alleged that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government has been "caught snooping" after WhatsApp said journalists and human rights activists in India have been targets of surveillance and urged the Supreme Court to hold the Centre accountable over the issue.
(With inputs from agencies)