The Facebook-owned app WhatsApp filed a suit against the Israeli surveillance company NSO. The suit was filed in federal court on 29th October 2019 because the messaging service app claimed that the company is illegally helping the governments to hack the mobile devices of over 100 people across the world. It includes journalists, human rights workers and women who had been the subject of online attacks.
The suit has added to a new legal front in attempts to prevent the abuses of the burgeoning but almost completely unregulated global surveillance industry. Hacking victims have previously prosecuted NSO in Israeli courts, but a technology company has not previously taken such legal action to use its services to help spy on users.
WhatsApp accused the Israel firm NSO by saying that it is helping the government agencies by delivering them malicious software through WhatsApp video calls which are harmless. It is being done even if the user does not attend their video call.
People familiar with NSO technology said “The malware is capable of initiating a powerful form of spying that included the ability to intercept communications, steal photos and other forms of data, activate microphones and cameras, track the locations of targets, and more”.
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According to the Whatsapp lawsuit “Targets, which also included religious figures and lawyers, were identified in 20 countries”.
An NSO surveillance tool called Pegasus was involved in spying on Washington Post contributing writer Jamal Khashoggi before he was killed by people affiliated with Saudi Arabia’s security services last year. A Khashoggi friend, Omar Abdulaziz, alleged in a complaint that his phone was infected by Pegasus without his knowledge and that the malicious software was assisting Khashoggi’s Saudi snoop.
While human rights and privacy activists have long complained about the increasingly intrusive nature of such surveillance technologies, they have had little opportunity to spy on new spammers or other remedies, as such tools are prevalent in many countries, along with Israeli leaders in the field. This has prompted government surveillance victims to seek redress in courts. The suit was filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
John Scott-Railton, a senior research at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School said “This is unprecedented. It’s a huge milestone in digital rights and privacy.” He helped the facebook-owned app to investigate the targets of civil society groups and contacted a few of the people affected.
What NSO has to say about this?
NSO directly rejected the allegations and said that its technology is used by governments and law enforcement to fight terrorism.
NSO said “In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them”.
According to the company, the use of this technology for purposes other than preventing crime and terrorism is abusive and contractually prohibited.
WhatsAppsaid in a blog post that the company “believes NSO and its parent company, Q Cyber Technologies, violated US and California law, as well as the terms of service for WhatsApp”.
Head of WhatsApp- Will Cathcart said “At WhatsApp, we believe people have a fundamental right to privacy and that no one else should have access to your private conversations, not even us. Mobile phones provide us with great utility, but turned against us they can reveal our locations and our private messages, and record sensitive conversations we have with others.”
Director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group- Eva Galperin said “The suit should put governments that want to snoop on notice”.
Galperin further added, “If you are an authoritarian government who buys spyware from NSO, you now run the risk of being caught”. He believes that other tech companies whose platforms have been allegedly targeted by NSO could also follow WhatsApp’s footsteps.
It is difficult to intercept the communication of WhatsApp as it is encrypted end-to-end. However, such technologies are vulnerable to hacking of single-target devices when calls and messages appear in decrypted form so that their intended recipients can view or listen to them. Once a device has penetrated, malicious software can take over almost all the features and turn them around – usually without noticing that something is wrong.
Many technology companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Google widely expanded their use of encryption in 2013. It was done after the 2013 revelations about the extent of online surveillance by the National Security Agency. This strengthened the market for technologies such as NSO that are based on hacking targets rather than interception of calls while traveling over the phone and the Internet.
As per the suit, “the WhatsApp users had numbers with country codes from several nations, including the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico”.
The suit also noted that “NSO’s clients include government agencies in those three countries, among others.”
The post from the company said “This number may grow higher as more victims come forward. We are committed to doing all we can, working with industry partners, to protect our users and guard against these kinds of threats.”
It also said, “This is the first time that an encrypted messaging provider is taking legal action against a private entity that has carried out this type of attack against its users.”
According to a Citizen Lab report from last year, the Pegasus malware of NSO has been used in 45 countries from which at least 10 has been used to conduct surveillance worldwide. The report mentioned six nations which includes- Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates which have been previously linked to abusive use of spyware to target the civil society.
The UN Special Rapporteur- David Kaye on freedom of expression wrote about NSO and its history of working with governments that targets members of civil society. But he also said “the surveillance industry overall needs more scrutiny in terms of its clients, its targeting and what safeguards, if any, are in place to prevent abuses.”
After the lawsuit was filed, Kaye said, “A fundamental problem with these companies – and NSO isn’t the only one – is that the private surveillance industry acts in practical darkness”.
WhatsApp which was founded in 2009 has become the most popular messaging app across world. It allows free text, voice, and video links carried free over the Internet. Later in 2014, Facebook bought it for $19 billion, and it now has more than 1.5 billion users.
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