Israeli Spyware Allegedly Used Against Senior Pakistani Officials, Report Says

Guardian report on purported use of NSO Group's software comes after speculation that India may be utilizing it to spy domestically

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The WhatsApp logo and binary cyber codes are seen in this illustration taken November 26, 2019.
The WhatsApp logo and binary cyber codes are seen in this illustration taken November 26, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Technology owned by Israeli spyware company NSO Group allegedly targeted the cellphones of at least two dozen Pakistani officials this year, the Guardian reported Thursday.

Those targeted included senior defense and intelligence officials, according to the report, which said the suspected attacks took advantage of vulnerability in the WhatsApp messaging service's software.

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The Guardian noted that the allegations are likely to raise speculation that India could have been using NSO's technology for surveillance purposes.

People familiar with WhatsApp's investigation into NSO's alleged activities told Reuters that a significant number of Indian civil society figures were put under surveillance using the spyware. The company has not identified anyone by name, but users including Indian lawyers, academics, Dalit rights activists and journalists have come forward to say they received warnings from WhatsApp that they were the targets of espionage.

Of those allegedly affected by NSO’s Pegasus spyware, 121 are based in India, WhatsApp’s biggest market with over 400 million users, two sources told Reuters previously.

Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

Earlier this year, WhatsApp owner Facebook Inc. sued NSO Group, accusing it of helping clients break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users, including diplomats, political dissidents, journalists, military and government officials, across four continents.

Pegasus, NSO’s flagship product, enables almost total and clandestine control over a cellphone. It can determine the phone’s location, tap the phone and record calls. It can also be used as a microphone to listen to anything nearby and can enable the camera remotely. All mail and text messages can be read – and written – and apps can be downloaded. Any other information on the phone, such as pictures, videos, reminders, calendars, contacts, and so on may also be accessed.

Last year, a Haaretz investigation spanning 100 sources in 15 revealed that Israeli spyware was being used by dictators around the world to spy on civilians. Another Haaretz investigation found that police were investigating allegations that NSO Group negotiated the sale of spyware to Saudi Arabia months before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began a purge of regime opponents. The Washington Post subsequently reported that Israel had authorized such a sale.