WhatsApp sues Israeli firm for enabling spy attacks on 1,400 users worldwide

NSO GroupThe Facebook-owned company WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against a leading Israeli technology firm, accusing it of enabling governments around the world to spy on 1,400 high-profile users, including politicians and diplomats. The Reuters news agency said it spoke to “people familiar” with the investigation into the spy scandal, which it says was launched “earlier this year”.

What is interesting about the case, says Reuters, is that a “significant” proportion of the hundreds of WhatsApp users who were targeted by governments worldwide are “high profile” officials. The victims reportedly serve in various government agencies, including the armed forces, of at least 20 countries on five continents. They allegedly include politicians, diplomats, military officers, academics, journalists, lawyers and human-rights activists in countries such as the United States, India, Mexico, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.

WhatsApp alleges that the spy activities against these individuals were enabled by NSO Group, an Israeli software development company that specializes in surveillance technologies. The Facebook-owned company alleges that NSO Group specifically developed a hacking platform that allows its users to exploit flaws in WhatsApp’s servers in order to gain access to the telephone devices of targeted individuals. At least 1,400 of WhatsApp’s users had their telephones compromised between April 29 and May 10, 2019, says WhatsApp.

NSO Group, whose clientele consists exclusively of government agencies worldwide, denies any wrongdoing. The company claims that its products are designed to “help governments catch terrorists and criminals”, says Reuters. But WhatsApp and Citizen Lab, a research initiative based at the University of Toronto, which worked with WhatsApp on the NGO Group case, claim that at least 100 of the 1,400 victims were news journalists, political activists and the lawyers who defend them. There was no overlap between ongoing criminal or terrorism investigations and those targeted by NSO Group’s software, they claim.

The names on the list of espionage victims are not known. But Reuters said that, depending on how high-profile the victims are, the WhatsApp-NSO Group spy scandal could have worldwide political and diplomatic consequences.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 November 2019 | Permalink

Saudi state spies on dissidents in Canada using software built by Israeli firm

Embassy of Saudi Arabia in CanadaThe government of Saudi Arabia is spying on expatriate dissidents in Canada using commercially available software designed by an Israeli company, according to researchers at the University of Toronto. This is alleged in a new report published on Monday by the Citizen Lab, a research unit of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, which focuses on information technology, international security and human rights. The report’s authors say they have “high confidence” that intrusive surveillance software is being deployed to target the electronic communications of Saudi dissidents, including Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist who has been living in Canada’s Quebec province for nearly 10 years.

Abdulaziz, 27, arrived in Canada on a student visa in 2009. In 2014, having publicly voiced criticisms of the Saudi royal family and Saudi Arabia’s repressive political system, and having been threatened by Saudi authorities, Abdulaziz successfully applied for political asylum in Canada. In 2017 he was granted permanent residency status. For the past eight years, Abdulaziz has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of the Saudi government, mostly through his satirical channel on YouTube. The channel, called Yakathah, has over 120,000 subscribers and its content has angered Saudi authorities. The latter have warned Abdulaziz’s parents and last summer arrested two of his brothers, in what he describes as attempts to silence him.

Researchers from Citizen Lab claim that the Saudi government has been targeting expatriate dissidents such as Abdulaziz using various techniques, such as sending them spyware-infested messages that express support for anti-government demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. The report also notes that these messages make use of Pegasus, a surveillance software system that has been previously implicated in surveillance activities against political dissidents from Gulf countries. The software was designed by NSO Group Technologies, an Israeli digital surveillance company based in Herzliya, a small coastal town located north of Tel Aviv.

The Citizen Lab report comes at a time of heightened tensions in relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia. In August, Canada’s Global Affairs Ministry issued sharp criticisms of the Saudi government’s human rights record, while Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was “gravely concerned” about the suppression of political speech in the Kingdom. She also urged the Saudi government to release a number of jailed political activists and stop censoring Saudi women activists seeking gender equality. But her comments enraged the Saudi royal family, which controls the Kingdom. Within days, the Saudi government expelled Canada’s ambassador from Riyadh and restricted its economic ties with Canada. The Kingdom also recalled several thousand Saudi students who were studying in Canadian universities on Saudi government scholarships.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 October 2018 | Permalink