Minister: Israeli government not involved in NSO Group’s alleged global hacking

After WhatsApp sues firm, accusing it of illicitly accessing phones worldwide, Ze’ev Elkin distances administration from the scandal

Environmental Protection Minister Ze'ev Elkin arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Environmental Protection Minister Ze'ev Elkin arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israeli government has no involvement in the actions of the NSO group, a Herzliya-based company accused of hacking government officials, journalists and dissidents around the world, a top Likud minister said Friday.

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a member of the high-level security cabinet and an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told 102 FM Radio “NSO is a private player using capabilities that Israelis have.”

According to a translation of the interview provided by Reuters, Elkin added: “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.”

He said that if the company had acted illegally, it was likely that “the justice system here and in other countries will throw the book at them.”

On Tuesday the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service filed a lawsuit in the US against the NSO Group, accusing it of using the hugely popular instant messaging platform to conduct cyber espionage on nearly 1,400 journalists, diplomats, dissidents and human right activists worldwide.

And on Thursday Reuters reported that senior government and military officials from some 20 countries allied with the United States were targeted, citing people familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation.

The Israeli firm has said it only licenses its software to governments for “fighting crime and terror.”

According to Reuters, victims of the hacking campaign included people in the United States, Mexico, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and India, but it was unclear whether government officials in those countries were affected.

Also Thursday, India demanded answers from WhatsApp over the snooping scandal after coming under fire from critics who accused authorities of using malware installed the messaging service to spy on citizens.

An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, on August 28, 2016, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (AFP/Jack Guez)

Nearly two dozen activists, lawyers and journalists were targeted in India — WhatsApp’s biggest market with some 400 million active users — according to Indian media reports.

The Indian Express reported WhatsApp confirmed a number of Indian users had been targeted by NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, which installed itself on their devices and relayed back data to the hackers.

New Delhi has asked WhatsApp to “explain the kind of breach and what it is doing to safeguard the privacy of millions of Indian citizens,” Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote on Twitter, denying the government had used the malware to spy on its citizens.

But opposition leaders accused the government of invading citizens’ privacy.

Indian media reports said 20 activists, lawyers and journalists were informed by WhatsApp recently that their phones were compromised for two weeks in May.

On Tuesday, the head of WhatsApp said the lawsuit was filed after an investigation showed NSO Group’s role in the cyberattack, despite its denials.

“NSO Group claims they responsibly serve governments, but we found more than 100 human rights defenders and journalists targeted in an attack last May. This abuse must be stopped,” Will Cathcart said on Twitter.

The lawsuit said Pegasus was designed to be remotely installed to hijack devices using the Android, iOS and BlackBerry operating systems.

Illustrative photo of an Android smartphone (screenshot: YouTube)

The complaint said the attackers “reverse-engineered the WhatsApp app and developed a program to enable them to emulate legitimate WhatsApp network traffic in order to transmit malicious code” to take over the devices.

The suit calls on the court to order NSO Group to stop any such attacks and asks for unspecified damages.

NSO Group came to prominence in 2016 when researchers accused it of helping spy on an activist in the United Arab Emirates.

Its best-known product is Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target’s phone camera and microphone, and access data on it.

AFP contributed to this report.

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