WhatsApp says Israeli spyware targeted and hacked phones of Indian journalists, activists

“Israel’s NSO Group has been accused of helping the government spies break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users across continents”

WhatsApp has accused Israel-based NSO Group of state-of-the-art surveillance on users across four continents. The company has now confirmed that the Indian journalists and human rights activists were also targeted and surveilled by operators using Israeli spyware Pegasus. Talking to The Indian Express, a WhatsApp spokesperson said that “Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number.”

It’s said that WhatsApp has contacted and alerted at least two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists, and journalists in India whose phones had been under surveillance for a two-week period until May 2019. The instant messaging platform, in a lawsuit in the US federal court in San Francisco, has alleged that the some 1,400 WhatsApp users have been targeted by NSO using Pegasus. It further added that the group helped the government spies break into the phones of the users.

“We believe this attack targeted at least 100 members of civil society which is an unmistakable pattern of abuse. This number may grow higher as more victims come forward,” said WhatsApp.

The NSO Group, meanwhile, has denied the allegations and claimed that it provides technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime. “In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them. Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists,” said the group in a statement. The company even has a ‘Human Rights Policy’, which came into force on September 19th, that “further embeds human rights protections throughout our business and governance systems.”

WhatsApp has alerted at least two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists, and journalists in India who had been targeted using Pegasus spyware

The Pegasus spyware is believed to target the users with an ‘exploit link’ or video call on WhatsApp, which allows the operator to penetrate security features on the phone and install Pegasus without the user’s knowledge or permission. The malware then allegedly allows NSO’s clients – said to be governments and intelligence organisations – to secretly spy on a phone’s owner and access private data, including passwords, contact lists, calendar events, text messages, and active voice calls from popular mobile messaging apps. The operator can even turn on the phone’s camera and microphone to capture activity in the phone’s vicinity.