Israeli spyware firm implicated in WhatsApp and Arab dissident hacks 'can mine social media data'

Israeli spyware firm implicated in WhatsApp and Arab dissident hacks 'can mine social media data'
The Israeli NSO Group has been accused of 'recklessly' selling its hacking technology to authoritarian regimes across the world, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
3 min read
19 July, 2019
The spyware company faces several lawsuits over its Pegasus hacking software [Getty]

The Israeli spyware firm favoured by repressive regimes across the Middle East and thought to have hacked WhatsApp earlier this year has told clients it can acquire user data from the world's top social media sites, The Financial Times reported on Friday.

NSO Group, a spyware company based in the Israeli seaside high-tech hub of Herzliya, has previously faced questions over its Pegasus software, which can reportedly switch on a target's cell phone camera and microphone, and access data on it, effectively turning the phone into a pocket spy.

That technology has been sold to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other repressive regimes, exposing the controversial company to multiple lawsuits in recent years.

NSO has "told buyers its technology can surreptitiously scrape all of an individual's data from the servers of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, according to people familiar with its sales pitch", the FT reported.

An NSO spokesperson, responding to a request for comment by AFP, denied the allegation.

"There is a fundamental misunderstanding of NSO, its services and technology," they said.

"NSO's products do not provide the type of collection capabilities and access to cloud applications, services, or infrastructure as listed and suggested in today's FT article."

Friday's report, citing documents the FT had viewed and descriptions of a product demonstration, alleged the Pegasus software had evolved to be able to capture a "much greater trove of information".

Read more: The Israeli company 'behind' WhatsApp, Khashoggi, Qatari emir hacks

The spyware can now reportedly reach beyond what is stored within the phone into connected cloud-based storage.

Such a capability would enable owners of the Pegasus hacking tool to see a target’s full location history, archived messages or photos and other key pieces of data previously hidden from view.

The software is normally sold to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

NSO says that it does not use the Pegasus system, only licensing it to closely vetted government users "for the sole purpose of preventing or investigating serious crime including terrorism".

But the group has come under fire for selling its technology to authoritarian regimes.

Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident based in Canada, last year implicated the software in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The 27-year-old critic of the Saudi royal family has since launched a lawsuit against the company.

The UAE has allegedly used Pegasus software to hack phones belonging to Qatar Emir Tamim al-Thani, Lebanon Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, and prominent Emirati dissident Ahmed Mansoor, among others.

Amnesty International also launched a legal case in Israel this year calling on the Israeli defence ministry to cancel NSO's export license, alleging that the company had recklessly sold technology to authoritarian regimes, further endangering human rights in those countries and elsewhere.

Referencing NSO and its Pegasus spyware, a UN expert last month called for "an immediate moratorium" on sales of surveillance technology until rules are established to stop companies selling products that help states violate human rights.
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