WhatsApp attacks: Pegasus spyware hacks 1400 users

WhatsApp have launched a legal case against the NSO group, for hacking the messaging platform with their Pegasus spyware which roughly impacted 1,400 users

Earlier this month, Amnesty International uncovered targeted digital attacks using Pegasus against two prominent Moroccan human rights defenders – academic and activist Maati Monjib, and human rights lawyer Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui.

In an initial statement, WhatsApp said:

“In May 2019 we stopped a highly sophisticated cyber attack that exploited our video calling system in order to send malware to the mobile devices of a number of WhatsApp users. The nature of the attack did not require targeted users to answer the calls they received.

“We quickly added new protections to our systems and issued an update to WhatsApp to help keep people safe. We are now taking additional action, based on what we have learned to date.

“WhatsApp has also filed a complaint in U.S. court that attributes the attack to a spyware company called NSO Group and its parent company Q Cyber Technologies. The complaint alleges they violated both U.S. and California laws as well as the WhatsApp Terms of Service, which prohibits this type of abuse.

“This is the first time that an encrypted messaging provider is taking legal action against a private entity that has carried out this type of attack against its users.

“In our complaint, we explain how NSO carried out this attack, including acknowledgement from an NSO employee that our steps to remediate the attack were effective. We are seeking a permanent injunction banning NSO from using our service.”

Responding to a statement by WhatsApp today that Pegasus spyware produced by the Israeli firm NSO Group was used to target more than 100 human rights activists, Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech, said:

“These latest revelations underscore that NSO Group continues to profit from its spyware products being used to intimidate, track, and punish scores of human rights defenders across the globe, including the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico. WhatsApp deserves credit for their tough stance against these malicious attacks, including their efforts to hold NSO to account in the courts.

“NSO says its spyware is solely intended to ‘prevent crime and terrorism’, but instead the firm’s invasive surveillance tools are being used to commit human rights abuses.

“The safest way to stop NSO’s spyware products reaching governments who plan to misuse them is to revoke the company’s export license. This is why next week, Amnesty International is supporting a legal case in Tel Aviv District Court to force the Israeli Ministry of Defence to do exactly that.”

Legal action against spyware attacks

WhatsApp has today said NSO spyware was used to exploit a vulnerability in the app to target approximately 1,400 people between approximately April 2019 and May 2019. One hundred of those targeted were human rights defenders according to WhatsApp, in countries around the world. The vulnerability, first published about in May, allowed attackers to install spyware by calling the target using WhatsApp.

Next Thursday, 7 November, the Tel Aviv’s District Court is due to hear a legal case arguing that Israel’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) should revoke NSO Groups export licence. The company’s Pegasus software has been used to target journalists and activists across the globe – including in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. An Amnesty International staff member was also targeted using Pegasus spyware.

The legal action is being brought by approximately 30 members and supporters of Amnesty International Israel and others from the human rights community. The action is supported by Amnesty International as part of a joint project with New York University (NYU) School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Global Justice Clinic, which seeks justice for human rights defenders targeted with malicious software.

In a statement, NSO said:

“In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them.

“The sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime.”

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