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Tek Fog: Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs seeks response from Home Ministry

The committee’s chairperson faces pressure to deliberate the secretive app and its reported features in the next meeting.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs headed by Congress leader Anand Sharma has written to the Union Home Secretary seeking a response from the Home Ministry and other concerned Ministries on the allegations around the Tek Fog app by January 20, The Hindu reported on January 12. The Committee plans to hold a discussion once a response is received, the report added.

Last week, an investigation by The Wire uncovered an alarmingly sophisticated app that can be used to manipulate Twitter and Facebook trends, hijack inactive WhatsApp accounts and spread propaganda, and target automated hate content towards specific groups of people. Most crucially, the investigation alleges that the app has strong ties to the ruling BJP party.

Taking note of these allegations, Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien wrote a letter urging the chairperson of the Standing Committee to take up the issue in the Committee’s next meeting. Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is also said to have written to Sharma asking for the same. 

“The existence and usage of manipulative technologies like Tek Fog is a severe danger to national and citizens’ security, a violation of our Fundamental Rights to Privacy and Free Speech, an exploitation of public discourse, and a defilement of the country’s democracy and security.” – MP Derek O’Brien

What can Tek Fog do?

O’Brien, referring to The Wire article, said that the app can do the following:

  1. Hijack Facebook and Twitter trends: O’Brien said that these sections, which usually contain organically popular conversations on the platforms 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 “auto-share” feature, effectively manufacturing artificial trends,” O’Brien said. 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”.
  2. Capture and phish through inactive WhatsApp accounts: O’Brien said that operatives can bypass programming as well as email/OTP verification to activate dormant WhatsApp accounts and then use the message the account’s “frequently contacted” list. “It can also create and manage WhatsApp groups to target journalists critical of certain parties,” he said.
  3. Target specific groups of people 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 shared screenshots that indicate that the app sends auto-replies by connecting to a Google Sheet or by auto-generating keywords and phrases, a vast majority of which are abusive or derogatory.
  4. 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.

“The potential scale, sophistication and pervasive nature of the Tek Fog operation provide unprecedented evidence of private actors engaging in the application of dubious digital practices – typically seen in totalitarian and closed societies such as China and North Korea – in the world’s largest democracy.” – The Wire

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