Facebook accuses Israel firm NSO for hacking activist phones

Business | 30 Oct 2019 10:19 am

Facebook sued the Israeli hacker-for-hire company NSO Group on Tuesday in U.S. federal court for allegedly targeting some 1,400 users of its encrypted messaging service WhatsApp with highly sophisticated spyware.

The lawsuit filed in San Francisco is the first legal action of its kind, according to Facebook, involving a nearly totally unregulated realm.

Facebook says NSO Group violated laws including the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with a crafty exploit that took advantage of a flaw in the popular communications program allowing a smartphone to be penetrated through missed calls alone.

“It targeted at least 100 human-rights defenders, journalists and other members of civil society across the world,” the head of WhatsApp, Will Cathart, wrote in an op-ed published by The Washington Post.

He said that since discovering the malware operation in May, Facebook learned that the attackers were using servers and internet-hosting services previously associated with NSO Group, which has been widely condemned for selling surveillance tools to repressive governments.

NSO Group issued a statement in which it did not directly deny hacking WhatsApp but which said it disputed the allegations and vowed to “vigorously fight them.”

“The sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime,” the company said. “Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists. It has helped to save thousands of lives over recent years.”

It said strongly encrypted platforms are used by pedophile rings, drug traffickers and terrorists and that NSO’s technologies “provide proportionate, lawful solutions.”

Facebook demands in the suit that NSO Group be denied access to Facebook’s services and systems and seeks unspecified damages.

Cathart said leaders of tech firms “should join U.N. (free speech) Special Rapporteur David Kaye’s call for an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of dangerous spyware.”

“This is huge. I am really glad to see a tech company put their massive litigation team on the field on behalf of users,” tweeted Alex Stamos, a Stanford University researcher and former Facebook chief security officer.

WhatsApp is the world’s most popular communications software, with about 1.5 billion users in 180 countries.

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