Terming the Tek Fog app as a ‘defilement of the country’s democracy and security’, Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien has written a letter urging the chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Home Affairs Anand Sharma to take up the explosive revelations about the app in the committee’s next meeting. MediaNama has reached out to Sharma with queries in this regard, and we will update the post if we receive a response.
O’Brien, who is a member of the committee, said that the Tek Fog app, whose details were uncovered in an investigation by The Wire, is —
- A violation of the Fundamental Rights to Privacy and Free Speech
- An exploitation of public discourse
- Could jeopardise national security
Tek Fog, an intrusive software application, is the first of its kind to have been exposed as being used for political means in India. It gives a glimpse of the sophistication of such apps that are able to operate in the dark, in the absence of robust data privacy laws in the country.
What can the app do?
O’Brien, referring to The Wire article, said that the app can do the following —
Hijack Twitter trends: O’Brien said that this section which usually contains organically popular conversations on the platform based on the number of retweets/shares under a topic, is hijacked artificially by the Tek Fog app. “Tek Fog is able to generate artificial re-tweeting/ sharing through its “auto-retweet” or “autoshare” feature, effectively manufacturing artificial trends,” O’Brien added.
Additionally, The Wire investigation found that the feature is used to amplify right-wing propaganda, allegedly “creating extremist narratives and political campaigns appear more popular than they actually are”.
Capture inactive WhatsApp accounts: O’Brien said that operatives can bypass programming as well as email/OTP verification to activate dormant WhatsApp accounts. The Rajya Sabha MP added that Tek Fog operators can also use the account’s ‘frequently contacted’ to spread its messaging. “It can also create and manage WhatsApp groups to target journalists critical of certain parties,” he said.
‘Exploit’ database of citizens for harassment: “The application not only has access to a wide database of private citizens segregated by occupation, religion, language, age, gender, political inclination and physical attributes but also uses this to “auto reply” to corresponding users on media platforms,” O’Brien said in the letter.
Additionally, The Wire report said that screenshots and screencasts of the app show a cloud database of private citizens which has been categorised according to their occupation, religion, language, age, and so on.
Erase evidence of activities with a click: O’Brien said that the app has features of deleting accounts, remapping existing accounts, generating new usernames. “It can thus erase all activities and replace it with new information at a moment’s notice,” he said.
These are the other features of the app, according to The Wire’s investigation —
- The app requires three one-time passwords to login to the app dashboard and the use of a local firewall that prevents access outside of the facility where it is used
- Generate temporary email address
- Activate phone numbers
- By-pass programming limitations, and email and OTP verification set by WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Telegram
Which tech companies are behind Tek Fog?
The Wire report said that Persistent Systems, an Indian-American publicly-traded technology services company and Mohalla Tech Pvt Ltd, Sharechat’s parent company, were behind the Tek Fog app. The report also pointed out that Persistent Systems has heavily invested in acquiring government contracts since 2015. While Persistent Systems did not respond to any of The Wire’s queries, Sharechat denied the claims made by the news organisation and termed it as “incorrect and false”.
Persistent Systems employs the operatives of Tek Fog as ‘social media incharge’ out of the company’s office in Nagpur, an unnamed source reportedly told The Wire. However, their recent project required collaboration with Sharechat and Devang Dave, the former National Social Media and IT Head of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, and the current election manager for BJP in Maharashtra.
Apart from Sharechat, the software uses these other tools for productivity —
- Google Docs and Sheets
- Zapier and Tasker for automation
- Grafana and Google Analytics for analytics
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- Supreme Court appoints committee to investigate Pegasus in India; “State does not get a free pass”
- UN Human Rights Council faces pressure to denounce and investigate Pegasus surveillance
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