WhatsApp Says Israeli Firm Used Its App in Spy Program

SAN FRANCISCO — WhatsApp sued the Israeli cybersurveillance firm NSO Group in federal court on Tuesday, claiming the company used the popular messaging service in a wide-ranging spy campaign on journalists and human-rights activists.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, claims in the lawsuit that an NSO Group program used WhatsApp to spy on more than 1,400 targets in 20 countries, including 100 journalists and human rights activists.

Over the past six months, WhatsApp, working closely with Citizen Lab, a research group affiliated with the University of Toronto, discovered an attack on its users.

The investigation started last spring, after Citizen Lab charged that NSO Group’s technology had exploited a WhatsApp security hole to hack the phone of a London lawyer. The lawyer represented several plaintiffs in lawsuits that accused NSO Group of providing tools to hack the phones of a Saudi Arabian dissident living in Canada, a Qatari citizen and a group of Mexican journalists and activists.

The suit was filed in the United States District Court in the Northern District of California. NSO Group did not immediately respond to request for comment.

In its lawsuit, WhatsApp said that between April and May 2019, it discovered NSO Group tools were used to hijack the phones of its users. WhatsApp said that based on the country codes of the numbers targeted, NSO Group’s tools were used to hack the phones of people in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.

WhatsApp said in a statement that it was informing affected customers with special WhatsApp messages. The company is seeking a permanent injunction banning NSO from its service, and called on lawmakers to ban the use of cyberweapons like those sold by NSO Group to governments all over the world.

“We agree with U.N. Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression David Kaye’s call for a moratorium on these attacks,” WhatsApp said in a statement. “There must be strong legal oversight of cyber weapons like the one used in this attack to ensure they are not used to violate individual rights and freedoms people deserve wherever they are in the world.”

This is a developing story. It will be updated.