In May this year, WhatsApp was found to contain a vulnerability that allowed users to be eavesdropped on. Spyware from the Israeli company NSO Group was used for this purpose. The chat app has now taken the NSO Group to court because of the practices.

The NSO Group’s spyware was found to be installed on iPhones and Android phones via WhatsApp. Hackers could do this by calling targets using the app’s phone function. Even if users didn’t answer their phone, the code could be sent. Moreover, the calls often disappeared from the call history, so the victim knew nothing.

“This attack has all the hallmarks of a private company known to work with governments to deliver spyware that reportedly takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems,” said WhatsApp at the time. At that time, the company was already referring to the NSO Group, which is involved in these kinds of activities.

In the meantime, WhatsApp has been able to investigate and determine with certainty that NSO Group is behind the attack, says Will Cathcart, Head of WhatsApp, in The Washington Post.

Research provided evidence

In fact, WhatsApp is so sure of its case that it has started a lawsuit against the NSO Group. The company claims to have evidence for these claims. “We learned that the attackers used servers and Internet-hosting services that were previously associated with NSO,” said Cathcart.

“In addition, as our complaint notes, we have tied certain WhatsApp accounts used during the attacks back to NSO. While their attack was highly sophisticated, their attempts to cover their tracks were not entirely successful.”

The research also provided more information about who the attack was aimed at. The attack targeted at least one hundred human rights activists, journalists and other citizens worldwide.

Wake-up call

Cathcart believes that this should be a wake-up call for tech companies, governments and internet users. The NSO Group makes tools for surveillance for governments, but according to Cathcart these are clearly abused. The fact that this technology is in the hands of “irresponsible companies and governments”, “puts us all at risk.”

The NSO Group has reacted to the lawsuit to Silicon Angle. “In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them,” the company says. “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 stresses that the technology is not designed or released for use against human rights defenders or journalists.