In India election, a $14 software tool helps overcome WhatsApp controls

At least three software tools were available on Amazon.com’s India website. (File/AFP)
Updated 15 May 2019
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In India election, a $14 software tool helps overcome WhatsApp controls

  • The activities highlight the challenges WhatsApp faces in preventing abuse in India
  • At least three software tools were available on Amazon.com’s India website

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI: WhatsApp clones and software tools that cost as little as $14 are helping Indian digital marketers and political activists bypass anti-spam restrictions set up by the world’s most popular messaging app, Reuters has found.
The activities highlight the challenges WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc, faces in preventing abuse in India, its biggest market with more than 200 million users.
With fervent campaigning in India’s staggered general election, which concludes on May 19, the demand for such tools has surged, according to digital companies and sources in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its main rival, the Congress party.
After false messages on WhatsApp last year sparked mob lynchings in India, the company restricted forwarding of a message to only five users. The software tools appear to overcome those restrictions, allowing users to reach thousands of people at once.
Divya Spandana, the social media chief of the Congress, and the BJP’s IT head, Amit Malviya, did not respond requests for comment.
Rohitash Repswal, who owns a digital marketing business in a cramped, residential neighborhood of New Delhi, said he ran a 1,000 rupee ($14) piece of software round-the-clock in recent months to send up to 100,000 WhatsApp messages a day for two BJP members.
“Whatever WhatsApp does, there’s a workaround,” Repswal said during an interview at his small, two-bedroom house.
Reuters found WhatsApp was misused in at least three ways in India for political campaigning: free clone apps available online were used by some BJP and Congress workers to manually forward messages on a mass basis; software tools which allow users to automate delivery of WhatsApp messages; and some firms offering political workers the chance to go onto a website and send bulk WhatsApp messages from anonymous numbers.
At least three software tools were available on Amazon.com’s India website. When purchased by a Reuters reporter, they arrived as compact discs tucked inside thin cardboard casings, with no company branding.
WhatsApp declined a Reuters request to allow testing such tools for reporting this story.
“We are continuing to step up our enforcement against imposter WhatsApp services and take legal action by sending cease and desist letters to hundreds of bulk messaging service providers to help curb abuse,” a spokeswoman said. “We do not want them to operate on our platform and we work to ban them.”
Whatsapp clones
Modified versions of popular apps have become common as technically-savvy hobbyists have long reverse-engineered them. Tools purporting to bypass WhatsApp restrictions are advertised in videos and online forums aimed at users in Indonesia and Nigeria, both of which held major elections this year.
For Indian politicians, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are key campaigning tools to target the country’s near 900 million voters.
Two Congress sources and one BJP source told Reuters their workers used clone apps such as “GBWhatsApp” and “JTWhatsApp,” which allowed them to cut through WhatsApp’s restrictions.
Both apps have a green-color interface that closely resembles WhatsApp and can be downloaded for free from dozens of technology blogs. They are not available on Google’s official app store but work on Android phones.
WhatsApp describes such apps as “unofficial” and says its users can face bans, which means the company can block the account associated with a particular mobile number if it detects unusual activity. Some Congress workers said they did not care.
“WhatsApp occasionally bans some of these numbers, but the volunteers would use new (mobile) sim cards to sign up,” said a Congress member with direct knowledge of the activities.
In Mumbai, a person in the social media team of a senior BJP candidate said no restrictions on JTWhatsApp meant his team could easily send forward to up to 6,000 people a day, as well as video files containing political content which would be far bigger in size than allowed on the official WhatsApp service.
Reuters was not able to ascertain the overall scale of such activities and found no evidence that BJP and Congress leaders officially ordered workers to campaign this way.
“Business sender”
In New Delhi, digital marketer Repswal said he would typically charge 150,000 rupees ($2,161) for a month’s service for creating digital content, providing a database of mobile numbers and then sending 300,000 WhatsApp messages.
He uses a piece of software named “Business Sender” which he said he also sells for 1,000 rupees ($14).
A person can add many mobile numbers in a field and compose messages with pictures. Using a so-called “Group Contacts Grabber” feature, the user can also extract a list of mobile numbers from a particular WhatsApp group with a click of a button.
Repswal didn’t name the two BJP members he worked for, but in a demonstration for Reuters, added dozens of mobile numbers in the software, typed a test message saying “your vote is your right” and hit “send.” Then, his WhatsApp web version started delivering the messages almost robotically, one after the other.
Business Sender was “not supported or endorsed” by WhatsApp and was developed by “Tiger Vikram Mysore INDIA,” its system properties said.
A member of the software support team at Business Sender, Rajesh K., declined to identify the developer by his real name, but said the tool was designed in Lebanon about four months ago and takes advantage of what he called a “loophole” in WhatsApp’s system.
“This is not rocket science or fabricated software,” said Rajesh. “There are hundreds of such software available.”
In April, when a Reuters reporter responded to a text message with an “Election Special” offer of sending 100,000 “bulk WhatsApp” messages for 7,999 rupees ($115), he was invited to an office in a dusty industrial area of Noida in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
“How many messages you want to send, tell us: 10,000, 1 million, 2 million,” a representative asked, while showing a black-colored, password-protected website they use for sending bulk WhatsApp messages.


Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Updated 10 min 15 sec ago
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Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar -- the birthplace of Taliban -- told AFP.
"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".