In India’s elections, a $14 software tool helps overcome WhatsApp checks

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NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) – WhatsApp clones and software tools that cost as little as $14 are helping Indian digital marketers and political activists circumvent anti-spam restrictions put in place by the popular messaging app. most popular in the world, Reuters found.

Rohitash Repswal, a digital marketer, checks a WhatsApp message he sent using a software tool that appears to automate the process of sending messages to WhatsApp users, at his office in New Delhi, on May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

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 fierce campaigning in India’s staggered general election, which ends on May 19, demand for such tools has increased, according to digital companies and sources from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its main rival, the Congress party.

After fake messages on WhatsApp last year sparked mob lynchings in India, the company limited the transmission of a message to just five users. Software tools seem to overcome these restrictions, allowing users to reach thousands of people at once.

Divya Spandana, the Congress social media chief, and BJP IT chief Amit Malviya did not respond to requests for comment.

Rohitash Repswal, who owns a digital marketing business in a cramped residential area of ​​New Delhi, said he has been using 1,000 rupiah ($14) software around the clock in recent months to send up to 100,000 messages WhatsApp a day for two. BJP members.

“Whatever WhatsApp does, there is a workaround,” Repswal said during an interview in his tiny two-bedroom home.

Reuters found that WhatsApp was being misused in at least three ways in India for political campaigns: free cloning apps available online were used by some BJP and Congress workers to manually forward messages in bulk; software tools that allow users to automate the delivery of WhatsApp messages; and some companies offering political workers the ability to access a website and send bulk WhatsApp messages from anonymous numbers.

At least three software tools were available on Amazon.com’s Indian website. When purchased by a Reuters reporter, they arrived as compact discs slipped into thin cardboard cases, with no corporate branding.

WhatsApp declined a request from Reuters to allow testing of such tools to report this story.

“We continue to strengthen our action against impostor WhatsApp services and take legal action by sending cease and desist letters to hundreds of messaging service providers en masse to help combat abuse,” he said. said a spokeswoman. “We don’t want them operating on our platform and we are working to ban them.”

WHATSAPP CLONE

Modified versions of popular apps have become common, as tech-savvy hobbyists have long reverse-engineered them. Tools claiming to circumvent WhatsApp restrictions are advertised in videos and online forums for users in Indonesia and Nigeria, both of which held major elections this year.

For Indian politicians, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter are key campaign tools to target the country’s nearly 900 million voters.

Two Congressional sources and a BJP source told Reuters that their employees used cloned apps such as “GBWhatsApp” and “JTWhatsApp”, which allowed them to circumvent WhatsApp restrictions.

Both apps have a green-colored interface that looks a lot like WhatsApp and can be downloaded for free from dozens of tech blogs. They are not available on the official Google App Store but work on Android phones.

WhatsApp describes these apps as “unofficial” and says its users may face bans, meaning the company can block the account associated with a particular mobile number if it detects unusual activity. Some congressional workers said they didn’t care.

“WhatsApp sometimes bars some of these numbers, but volunteers used new (mobile) SIM cards to sign up,” said a congressman with direct knowledge of the activities.

In Mumbai, someone from the social media team of a senior BJP candidate said no restrictions on JTWhatsApp meant his team could easily send up to 6,000 people a day, along with video files containing much larger political content. than what is allowed on the official WhatsApp service.

Reuters was unable to determine the overall extent of these activities and found no evidence that BJP and Congress leaders officially ordered workers to campaign in this manner.

“COMMERCIAL SHIPPER”

In New Delhi, digital marketer Repswal said he typically charges 150,000 rupees ($2,161) for a month-long service for creating digital content, providing a database of mobile numbers , then sending 300,000 WhatsApp messages.

He uses software called “Business Sender” which he also sells for 1,000 rupees ($14).

A person can add multiple mobile phone numbers in one field and compose messages with pictures. Using a feature called “Group Contacts Grabber”, the user can also grab a list of mobile numbers from a particular WhatsApp group with a click of a button.

Repswal did not name the two BJP members he worked for, but during a demonstration for Reuters, added dozens of mobile phone numbers in the software, typed a test message saying “your vote is your right” and pressed “send”. Then his web version of WhatsApp started delivering messages almost robotically, one after another.

Business Sender was “not supported or endorsed” by WhatsApp and was developed by “Tiger Vikram Mysore INDIA”, according to its system properties.

A member of Business Sender’s software support team, 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. system.

“It’s not rocket science or fabricated software,” Rajesh said. “There are hundreds of such software.”

In April, when a Reuters reporter replied to a text message with an “election special” offer to send 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. State of Pradesh.

“How many messages do you want to send, tell us: 10,000, 1 million, 2 million,” a representative asked, while pointing to a black-colored, password-protected website they use to send messages Mass WhatsApp.

Reporting by Munsif Vengattil, Aditya Kalra and Sankalp Phartiyal; Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal, Paresh Dave and Fanny Potkin; Written by Aditya Kalra; Editing by Martin Howell, Jonathan Weber and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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