Hackers Target Government Officials Using WhatsApp
Facebook is embroiled in controversy in the aftermath of the company’s decision not to remove political advertisements that contain falsehoods, drawing criticism from politicians and the general public alike for being complicit in spreading misinformation. The social media platform is no stranger to controversy of this sort, as many critics have called out the company for failing to mitigate the impact of foreign interference in elections and for failing to adequately safeguard its users’ privacy, among other concerns. Most recently, the news organization Reuters reported that hackers have been using WhatsApp, a messaging application owned by Facebook, to attack government officials.
According to Reuters, an internal investigation conducted by WhatsApp revealed that a “significant” portion of the victims were high-profile government and military officials, many of which were allies of the U.S. As government officials from the United States and around the world have been known to use WhatsApp to communicate sensitive information, the WhatsApp hacks pose a significant risk to domestic and international security. In response to the attacks, WhatsApp sued the Israeli hacking tool developer NSO Group, alleging that they created and sold a hacking platform that allowed their clients to hack the cellphones of at least 1,400 users between April and May of this year. The total number of affected users is unknown, but is likely to be much higher than the 1,400 users mentioned in the lawsuit.
It’s not clear as of yet who was directly responsible for initiating the hacks, but NSO sells spyware exclusively to government customers, suggesting adversaries of the U.S. may be responsible. Known victims include officials in the United States, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan, and India. While most of the victims have not disclosed the fact that their security may have been compromised, some Indian nationals have publicly alleged they were among the targets of the attacks, including journalists, academics, and lawyers.
NSO has denied any wrongdoing, and has said that it is “not able to disclose who is or is not a client or discuss specific uses of its technology.” Instead, NSO claims that its products are intended only for catching terrorists and other criminals. However, experts doubt this claim, as they suspect products developed by NSO have been widely used for more nefarious purposes.
WhatsApp has notified victims that they had been hacked, and checked their list of known victims against law enforcement requests for information relating to criminal investigations, but found no overlap between the two sets of data. Instead of relying on spyware like that developed by NSO Group, WhatsApp encourages governments to submit requests for information to the company through an online portal they maintain. Though WhatsApp provides its users with end-to-end encryption, ensuring that only the sender and recipient are able to read the contents of messages, the company nevertheless cooperates with governments for legitimate law enforcement purposes.
As of 2015, WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging application, as it allows users to send text messages, media, voice messages, and make Voice over IP calls, among other features. The app is available around the world, and is particularly popular in countries other than the U.S. Facebook purchased WhatsApp in February of 2014 for $19 billion, representing the social network’s largest acquisition to date. Due to the app’s ability to enable secure, private communication between individuals, the app is banned in China, a country with strict restrictions on speech. WhatsApp has been the subject of criticism for multiple reasons, including its use by terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, as well as the prevalence of scams and malware throughout the app.
Tyler Olhorst is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. You can reach him at email@example.com.