WhatsApp hack: Tech giants unite against spyware company NSO Group

Some of the biggest technology companies in the world, including Google and Microsoft, have joined Facebook’s legal battle against the private spyware company NSO Group.

It follows Facebook launching a legal challenge against the Israeli firm after confirming that an initially unnamed hacking group had developed a tool which could take control of victims’ phones by calling them over WhatsApp.

The companies now join Facebook’s lawsuit, accusing NSO Group of developing “powerful and dangerous” tools that have enabled authoritarian governments to spy on more than 1,400 people around the world, as reported by Reuters.

Jamal Khashoggi
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was reportedly targeted using NSO tools

At the time, WhatsApp said that it had detected attacks which carried the hallmarks of a private surveillance technology firm – one that reportedly works with governments to deliver spyware that takes over mobile phone operating systems.

Dozens of WhatsApp users, including human rights organisations and a UK-based lawyer, are thought to have been targeted after hackers exploited a major vulnerability in the app.

The attackers were able to install spyware through WhatsApp’s voice call function, even if the user did not pick up the call, the company confirmed.

WhatsApp subsequently named the company when it brought a lawsuit against NSO.

By filing an amicus brief – a supporting document filed to a court by parties who aren’t directly involved in the case – the companies expressed their support for Facebook’s arguments.

The intervention comes amid significant pushback against offensive hacking operations as a result of a successful intrusion into a number of US government systems, believed to have been conducted by the Russian government.

GoogleMicrosoft and the others argued against the “sovereign immunity” claim advanced by NSO, suggesting that its tools were only ever used by foreign states who are immune from civil or criminal prosecutions.

The tech giants warned that granting NSO’s request would lead to a proliferation in hacking tools and arm “more foreign governments with powerful and dangerous cyber surveillance tools”.

That would increase the risk faced by everyone from cyber security attacks, the brief argues.

It follows a report from Canada-based Citizen Lab which alleged that the company’s hacking technology was used to target dozens of journalists at Al Jazeera.

The company’s spyware has also been linked to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

NSO has repeatedly said that it is “not involved in the operating or identifying of targets of its technology, which is solely operated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies”.