WhatsApp CEO: Gov't Officials from US Allied Countries Targeted by NSO Spyware
The statement comes following revelations that the company’s spyware Pegasus was used to target thousands of people across the world, including diplomats, opposition politicians, human rights activists, former and current heads of state. NSO has dismissed the report, which it described as “full of wrong assumptions”.
Senior government officials from countries that are US allies were among those targeted by NSO developed spyware, Will Cathcart, chief executive of messaging application WhatsApp, told the Guardian. Cathcart’s statement refers to the 2019 hacking attack on WhatsApp users, which is now the subject of a lawsuit brought by the company against NSO.
The chief executive said that individuals, who were targeted two years ago, included those who held high-ranking national security positions in their countries. At the same time, the spyware affected rank-and-file people, such as journalists or human rights activists, people as Mr Cathcart put it had “no business being under surveillance in any way, shape, or form”.
Are We All Unsafe?
The attack shares the same characteristics as the recent revelations about NSO’s spyware Pegasus, said the head of the messaging application
"The reporting matches what we saw in the attack we defeated two years ago, it is very consistent with what we were loud about then. This should be a wake up call for security on the internet … mobile phones are either safe for everyone or they are not safe for everyone", said Cathcart.
Last week 17 outlets led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories published the results of a global investigation, which revealed that NSO-developed spyware Pegasus used by government worldwide to combat terrorism and crime, has been used to target hundreds of people across the world, including diplomats, journalists, human rights activists, royals, former and current heads of state.
Among the individuals, whose phones were reportedly affected by the snooping software are: French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, King of Morocco Mohammed VI, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Iraqi President Barham Salih, President of the European Council Charles Michel and others.
According to the investigation, their numbers were on the list of 50,000 contacts that have been targeted by clients of NSO since 2016.
Pegasus spyware can be installed on the phone via sms or messaging applications with most versions of iOS or Android being reportedly vulnerable to it. The perpetrator essentially gains access to all information on the phone – from photos, videos and conversations to person’s location, contacts and his phone’s camera and microphone.
Full of Wrong Assumptions
Israeli company NSO said the joint investigation of 17 outlets is full of "uncorroborated theories" and "wrong assumptions". The company’s founder Shalev Hulio said the list of targets is "not linked" to NSO.
"The platform we produce prevents terrorist attacks and saves lives. I think that, ultimately, this will end up in the courts, with a legal ruling in our favour, after we file defamation suits, because we won't have any other choice", Hulio said.
He stressed that the company works with 45 countries and turned down offers from 90 countries, refusing to name any of them. NSO also said that the number of targets (50,000) is exaggerated and is too large to represent individuals targeted by Pegasus.
However, Will Cathcart questioned that remark, saying WhatsApp recorded an attack on 1,400 people alone over a two-week period in 2019.
"That tells us that over a longer period of time, over a multi-year period of time, the numbers of people being attacked are very high. That’s why we felt it was so important to raise the concern around this", he said.
The head of WhatsApp has also called on the international community to introduce laws, which will hold accountable developers of spyware as well as those, who use it illegally.
"If this is affecting journalists all around the world, this is affecting human rights defenders all around the world, that affects us all. And if anyone’s phone is not secured that means everyone’s phone is not secure", Cathcart said.