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Tek Fog Not An App, Tech Writer Punches Holes In Investigation

Tek Fog has been called an app several times, but actually isn’t one. 

Representative image showing various social media logos and computer in the background.

TEK FOG has been in the news for the last few days as it was allegedly used by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to troll and manipulate social media discourse. Now, an investigation by an independent tech expert tries to clear the mystery around Tek Fog which he claims has been erroneously called an application. 

The critique on The Wire’s three-part investigation on Tek Fog questions the report and also tries to disprove claims made. This includes finding that Tek Fog is not an actual app, that there’s no concrete evidence on just how many accounts were part of the secret world, or if people were targeted as methodically as stated in the report.  

The first two parts of the investigative report itself, by Devesh Kumar and Ayushman Kaul, were a daunting read for a non-tech writer, with all the tech jargon being used.  

Tech writer Samarth Bansal’s critique of the investigation in a fortnightly newsletter ‘The Interval’ calls this a way to “obscure” a fact, as he puts it: “jargon also serves to obscure a single unpalatable fact: There is simply not enough evidence in this reporting to prove its far-reaching claims.”

For starters, what did the investigation claim? Their source, “a disgruntled employee of the BJP Information Technology Cell (IT Cell) claimed their daily job involved hijacking Twitter’s ‘trending’ section with targeted hashtags, creating and managing multiple WhatsApp groups affiliated to the BJP and directing the online harassment of journalists critical of the BJP, all via the Tek Fog.”

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So, we know Twitter, amongst other social media sites, has been used extensively to spread fake news – many a times to show India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as an alcoholic, chain-smoking womanizer, or to target communities and cause communal disharmony. BJP IT cell has several times in the past been accused of being the source of such posts. Their party leaders have been found to share fake news; Twitter has flagged BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra and BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya’s posts as “manipulated media”.    

What this investigation does is allegedly show how the ruling party uses technology to benefit itself, troll, and even steal identities.  

But Bansal’s criticism of it, may be picked up for the searing holes it shows in their investigation. He writes in one line “I am convinced: The Wire has committed a classic journalistic sin of overreach.” So has it? One can read Bansal’s thorough critique in the embedded link provided. For us what stood out were a few things, like how Tek Fog has been called an app several times, but actually isn’t one.

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Bansal writes, “The Wire does not have hard evidence that thousands of accounts were sending out tweets from this secret app. In fact, as Devesh made it plain to me, Tek Fog is not just one app: it’s a concept, it’s a “metaworld”…” 

Devesh was quoted as responding to Bansals questions on how they categorized Tek Fog activity, to which the writer’s response seemed to signal that this was based on assumptions.

“Let’s say there is another app for tweeting out content….but if the work [social media manipulation] is the same, and it is happening in the same network [same hashtags, same targets], then it can also be counted as Tek Fog.” 

He went on to tell Bansal that Tek Fog was “an assimilation of all the coding-related things that are resulting in social media manipulation”. 

Next claim that also had us questioning things was about the information on individuals that the app had. Okay, so the person’s occupation, religion, and political affiliations are still understandably easy to acquire especially if the gatherer of this information is the ruling government. But the report claims that this app even had names divided into their physical characteristics, as one screenshot shows “women with fair skin”, “women with large breasts”. These options are not clicked on next and we do not get to see the screenshots of what comes after selecting those options.

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But while Bansal diminishes the findings saying “All it proves is that liberals are all too eager to believe that an all-powerful BJP has developed powerful technology to destroy democracy — and merely need assurance that it is indeed so”, he later in his critique acknowledges that the “Whatsapp hijack” is a solid scoop. 

The portal wrote about this “hijack” that the “alarming feature offered by the app is its ability to allow individual operatives to hijack ‘inactive’ WhatsApp accounts of private citizens and use their phone number to message their ‘frequently contacted’ or ‘all contacts’, using a technique resembling ‘token theft’”. 

How it works is “TekFog operatives” infect targeted phones with malware.

It verified this by asking their source to perform a real-time demonstration of the WhatsApp exploit. “Within minutes of being provided with a custom text message by the authors, the source used Tek Fog to hijack an ‘inactive’ WhatsApp account belonging to one of the authors and used the compromised account to send the custom text message to the researchers’ ‘frequently contacted’ users on the platform.” 

Looking at these screenshots itself, it makes one think if they could be the next target. While not all may be interested to know which journalists are targeted, they would be worried to find if their phone numbers are targeted and their personal contacts were stolen. This is literal identity theft which perhaps should be the main takeaway point for the majority of the people.