A security weakness in the WhatsApp mobile communications app enabled Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group Technologies to plant spyware on telephones, according to a report in "The Financial Times" (FT) yesterday. The report is based on an announcement by WhatsApp itself, which earlier this month revealed that hackers were capable of using the weakness to install surveillance software on both iPhone and Android devices using the app's voice calls service. WhatsApp says it fixed the security breach yesterday.
According to the FT report, the malicious code could install itself on a telephone when a call was made to it, even if the user did not answer the call. WhatsApp has 1.5 billion users, and the investigation is at too early a stage to tell how many devices have been affected, according to a source quoted by the FT.
According to a potential investor in NSO quoted by the FT, in a presentation to investors in April, NSO boasted that the latest security updates by Apple, meant to guard iPhone users' private information, had no bearing on the weaknesses exploited by NSO's spy software Pegasus. The company's representative said that despite annual software updates by companies like Apple, NSO had a proven record of identifying new weaknesses.
In response to the FT report, NSO said in a statement: "NSO's technology is licensed to authorized government agencies for the sole purpose of fighting crime and terror. "The company does not operate the system, and after a rigorous licensing and vetting process, intelligence and law enforcement determine how to use the technology to support their public safety missions. We investigate any credible allegations of misuse and if necessary, we take action, including shutting down the system. "Under no circumstances would NSO be involved in the operating or identifying of targets of its technology, which is solely operated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. NSO would not or could not use its technology in its own right to target any person or organization."
NSO was founded in 2010. It produces cyber-attack software, the best-known product being Pegasus, a program classified as a defense weapon that makes it possible to break into mobile telephones and computers and spy on them without their owners being aware of it. Over the years, the company has become embroiled in several affairs in which it was revealed that its software enabled some unsavory regimes to spy on opponents. Yesterday, Amnesty International petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to have the company's export license revoked. In 2017, 'The New York Times" revealed that spyware developed by NSO was used to spy on Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi and contributed to the decision to murder him.
Although NSO denies any involvement in espionage carried out using its software, contracts between the company and its customers that have been exposed over the years reveal that NSO also provides its customers with training and data transfer services and routine assistance, and not just software. In the petition now being heard in Tel Aviv it is claimed that NSO is actively involved in data transfer and processing, training, and provision of updates for its clients.
It was recently reported that NSO's founders, with the support of European private equity firm Novalpina Capital, bought back ownership of the company from private equity firm Francisco Partners at a valuation close to $1 billion.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 14, 2019
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