Israel govt denies role in alleged cyberhack

Denial comes after WhatsApp sues Israeli firm, saying it helped govt spies hack phones

JERUSALEM • Israel's government yesterday denied involvement in an alleged cyberhack by the Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group, after officials in US-allied countries were reportedly targeted with hacking software that used Facebook's WhatsApp to take over users' phones.

Distancing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government from the alleged attempts to send malware to the mobile devices of a number of WhatsApp users, Israeli Security Cabinet Minister Zeev Elkin said that if anyone had done anything "forbidden" they could expect to find themselves in court.

"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," Mr Elkin told 102 FM Tel Aviv Radio.

On Tuesday, WhatsApp sued NSO Group, 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.

The Facebook-owned software giant alleges that NSO Group built and sold a hacking platform that exploited a flaw in WhatsApp-owned servers to help clients hack into the cellphones between April 29 and May 10 this year.

On Thursday, Reuters reported that senior government and military officials in many US-allied countries had been targeted earlier this year, according to people familiar with the messaging company's investigation.

Some victims are in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan and India, said people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether the officials were from those countries or elsewhere.

NSO has denied the allegations "in the strongest possible terms", saying it would fight them "vigorously".

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


WhatsApp is used by 1.5 billion people every month and the app has often touted a high level of security, including end-to-end encrypted messages that cannot be deciphered by WhatsApp or other third parties.

Mr John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at University of Toronto's Citizen Lab - which investigates digital espionage among other research projects - said it was not surprising that foreign officials would be targeted as well.

"It is an open secret that many technologies branded for law enforcement investigations are used for state-on-state and political espionage," Mr Scott-Railton said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2019, with the headline 'Israel govt denies role in alleged cyberhack'. Print Edition | Subscribe