No Israeli government involvement in alleged NSO-WhatsApp hack: minister

The Israeli government on Friday denied any involvement in an alleged cyber-hack by Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group.

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 denied "any political fallout from this incident."

"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," Elkin told 102.FM Tel Aviv Radio, if anyone had done anything "forbidden" they could expect to find themselves in court.

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. The Indian Express reported that at least two dozen academics, lawyers, Dalit activists and journalists in India were contacted and alerted by WhatsApp that their phones had been under surveillance for a two-week period between April 29, 2019, and May 10, 2019.

Related reading: India seeks explanation on WhatsApp's global snooping scandal

To monitor a user, NSO Group used Pegasus to contracting users' data, which has been licensed "only to vetted and legitimate government agencies," said by NSO Group.

In order to conduct the surveillance, Pegasus operator must convince the user to click on a specially crafted 'exploit link' which allows the operator to penetrate security features on the phone and installs Pegasus without the user's knowledge or permission. Once the phone is exploited and Pegasus installed, it begins contacting the operator's command and control servers, and send back the user's private data, including passwords, contact lists, calendar events, text messages, and live voice calls. The operator can even turn on the phone's camera and microphone to capture activity in the phone's vicinity. 

People familiar with this investigation told Reuters on Thursday that senior government officials in many U.S.-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used WhatsApp to take over users' phones.

In September 2018, Canada-based cyber security group Citizen Lab said: "We found suspected NSO Pegasus infections associated with 33 of the 36 Pegasus operators we identified in 45 countries" including India. The 2018 report goes on to point to an India link active from June 2017 to September 2018. "We identified five operators that we believe are focusing on Asia. One operator, Ganges, used a politically themed domain."

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

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