No Israeli Government Involvement in NSO's Alleged Whatsapp Hack, Minister Says

'This is not about the state of Israel' ■ Zeev Elkin attempts damage control, as scandal takes global dimension

Minister for Jersualem Affairs Zeev Elkin on the phone, Knesset, Jerusalem, May 27, 2019
Emil Salman

The Israeli government had nothing to do with an alleged cyber- hack by surveillance firm NSO Group, an Israeli security cabinet minister said on Friday.

"NSO is a private player using capabilities that Israelis have, thousands of people are in the cyber field, but there is no Israeli government involvement here, everyone understands that, this is not about the State of Israel," Israeli security cabinet member and minister for Jerusalem affairs Zeev Elkin told 102.FM Tel Aviv Radio.

In his radio interview Elkin said "I don't see any political fallout from this incident."

He added: "It is true that when people do things that are forbidden - I have no way of determining whether they did indeed do anything forbidden - then the justice system here and in other countries will throw the book at them.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp sued Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group on Tuesday, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users across four continents in a hacking spree whose targets included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.

Some victims are located in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan and India, said people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether victims from these countries included government officials.

Elkin's comments come as more than a dozen journalists and human rights activists in India, WhatsApp's biggest market with 400 million users, said on Thursday they were also targeted.

New Delhi has asked the Facebook-owned company to explain the nature of the privacy breach, and what steps it was taking to remedy to it. 

While it is not clear who used the software to hack officials' phones, NSO says it sells its spyware exclusively to government customers.

A Financial Times report in May 2019 exposed how NSO was able to break into WhatsApp conversations and accounts. The messaging system is supposed to be encrypted for users' privacy.

At the time, the company had responded that it didn't operate the technology itself, but was only selling it to state agents with the purpose of "fighting crime and terror."

Critics argue that this is factually inaccurate, as the firm's spyware products have been used in the past, and may still be in use, for the surveillance of human rights activists of Amnesty International and other groups - as a 2018 Haaretz investigation shows

In December 2018, a Washington Post investigation revealed that the Israeli government had authorized the sale of NSO products to Saudi Arabia, amid revelations that it was allegedly used in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.