WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior government officials in several US allies were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook Inc's WhatsApp to take over user phones, according to people familiar with the message company survey.
FILE PHOTO: The WhatsApp messaging application is viewed on a phone screen on August 3, 2017. REUTERS / Thomas White / File Photo
Sources familiar with WhatsApp's internal investigation of the breach said a "significant" portion of known victims are high-profile government and military officials spread across at least 20 countries on five continents. Many of the nations are American allies, they said.
The hacking of a wider group of top government smartphones than previously reported suggests that WhatsApp cyber penetration can have major political and diplomatic consequences.
WhatsApp filed lawsuit on Tuesday against Israeli hacking tool developer NSO Group. The Facebook-owned software giant claims that NSO Group built and sold a hacking platform that exploited a WhatsApp-owned server error to help clients hack into the mobile phones of at least 1,400 users between April 29, 2019 and May 10, 2019.  The total number of WhatsApp users hacked may be even higher. A London-based human rights lawyer, among the targets, sent Reuters photographs showing attempts to break into his phone back to April 1.
While it is not clear who used the software to hack officials' phones, NSO has said it sells the spyware exclusively to government customers.
Some victims are in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan and India, say people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether the authorities came from these countries or elsewhere.
Some Indian citizens have made allegations that they were among the targets in the last couple of days; they include journalists, academics, lawyers and defenders of India's Dalit community.
The NSO stated in a statement that it "was unable to disclose who is or is not a client or discuss specific uses of the technology." In the past, it has denied any wrongdoing and said the products are only meant to help governments capture terrorists and criminals.
Cybersecurity researchers have questioned these claims over the years, saying NSO products were used against a wide range of targets, including protesters in countries under authoritarian rule.
Citizen Lab, an independent watchdog group working with WhatsApp to identify the hacking targets, said Tuesday that at least 100 of the victims were civil society figures such as journalists and dissidents, not criminals.
John Scott-Railton, senior scientist at Citizen Lab, said it was not surprising that foreign officials would also be targeted.
"It is an open secret that many technologies marked for law enforcement investigations are used for state espionage and political espionage," Scott-Railton said.
Prior to alerting victims, WhatsApp checked the target list against existing law enforcement requests for information related to criminal investigation, such as terrorism or child abuse cases. But the company found no overlap, said a person familiar with the matter. Governments can send such requests for information to WhatsApp through a web portal the company maintains.
WhatsApp has said it sent warning alerts to affected users earlier this week. The company has declined to comment on the identity of NSO Group's customers, who ultimately chose the targets.
Reporting by Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter; Editing by Chris Sanders, Lisa Shumaker and Tom Brown