Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Social Media

Govt. Officials in 20 Nations Targeted Via WhatsApp: Report

News Comes After Facebook Sues NSO Group, Alleging Spying
Govt. Officials in 20 Nations Targeted Via WhatsApp: Report

Senior government officials in at least 20 countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook’s WhatsApp to take over users’ phones, Reuters reports, citing sources familiar with the messaging company’s investigation.

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Some victims are in the United States, India, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico and Pakistan, people familiar with the investigation told Reuters. The news service reports that it could not verify whether the government officials were from those countries or elsewhere.

Facebook Sues NSO Group

Earlier this week, Facebook announced it was suing NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company, alleging it developed a potent zero-day exploit to spy on WhatsApp messages (see: Facebook Sues Spyware Maker Over WhatsApp Exploit ).

Between April and May, Facebook alleges that 1,400 devices were infected, including those of senior government officials, diplomats, political dissidents, human rights activists, attorneys and journalists. In a FAQ, WhatsApp says "we believe this attack targeted at least 100 members of civil society."

Facebook alleges NSO Group violated the law by reverse-engineering its WhatsApp messaging app to develop an exploit that could deliver its malware called Pegasus to targeted devices merely by an attacker initiating a video call to a device.

"Pegasus was designed, in part, to intercept communications sent to and from a device, including communications over iMessage, Skype, Telegram, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and others," according to the lawsuit.

NSO Group told Reuters that it was “not able to disclose who is or is not a client or discuss specific uses of its technology.”

In a statement earlier this week, NSO Group noted: "The sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime. Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists. It has helped to save thousands of lives over recent years."

Victims in India

A WhatsApp spokesperson told The Indian Express that as many as 19 Indian activists, lawyers, and journalists, including defenders of India’s Dalit community, were among the affected victims.

”The government of India is concerned at the breach of privacy of citizens of India on the messaging platform Whatsapp," tweeted Ravi Shankar Prasad, India's Union Minister for Law and IT. "We have asked Whatsapp to explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens."

Targeting of Rights Activists

Earlier, Amnesty International accused the NSO Group of using sophisticated spying tools to plant malware on the smartphones of two human rights activists in Morocco (see: Report: Hackers Spied on Moroccan Human Rights Activists )

And in May, Facebook requested its users to update WhatsApp after the NSO Group allegedly used a similar design flaw to install spyware on a device and steal data (see: Attackers Exploit WhatsApp Flaw to Auto-Install Spyware)

About the Author

Akshaya Asokan

Akshaya Asokan

Senior Correspondent, ISMG

Asokan is a U.K.-based senior correspondent for Information Security Media Group's global news desk. She previously worked with IDG and other publications, reporting on developments in technology, minority rights and education.

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