Military and high-ranking members of at least 20 governments have been spied on by a virus that invades the phone via WhatsApp. The information came last week, shortly after confirmation that Facebook filed a lawsuit against NSO, an Israeli security firm that allegedly developed the spy malware used in the attacks. According to a news agency publication Reuters, an investigation conducted by Mark Zuckerberg's company identified up to 1,400 spied-upon people, including civilians.
The case surfaced in May when the social network confirmed the messaging application issue and released an emergency update to address the vulnerability exploited by spyware. The measure resolved a bug that allowed them to infect cell phones only when receiving a voice call without having to answer. Victims could be watched by the microphone and cameras on the phone, as well as having personal files leaked. Here are seven facts you need to know about the case.
WhatsApp sues company for spying users on messenger
Spy viruses on WhatsApp reportedly hit 1,400 people, including members of 20 governments. Photo: Anna Kellen Bull / dnetc
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1. At least 20 affected governments
According to Reuters, the Facebook investigation points out that at least 20 countries have had high-ranking officers victims of the spy virus. The full list is not known, but most would be US allies, something that could exclude countries such as Russia and China, for example. Some of the victims would be from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, India, Mexico and Pakistan, but it is unclear whether the affected government and military members were from these countries. What is known is that a "significant" portion of the victims were people in key positions in various governments around the world. There is still no evidence of Brazilian victims.
2. Targets include journalists, diplomats and lawyers
In total, an estimated 1,400 people were spied on between April 29 and May 10. There is a predominance of politicians and other members of governments in the group of affected users, but there are also journalists, lawyers, diplomats and human rights activists among those affected. One case involved a lawyer in London who was able to capture prints of the exact times when spy malware was trying to access your phone.
This episode, however, occurred days before the period of attacks identified by Facebook, which may indicate that the raids started much earlier. Consequently, the number of people affected may be higher.
Mobile phones could be infected by WhatsApp call Photo: Anna Kellen Bull / dnetc
3. Number of vulnerable users uncertain
The spy virus operates by exploiting a security hole in WhatsApp. For now, this vulnerability is known to allow malware to invade the target's smartphone without the need for a very sophisticated attack: a voice call, even if unanswered, would be sufficient to connect the victim's cell phone to an external server and make way for the invasion. Facebook has not provided details about the bug, but makes sure that the update released in May resolves the issue.
However, it is not possible to know how many people have actually updated their phones since this month. The company does not disclose data about the currently active versions of the app. The fix is present from versions 2.19.134 (WhatsApp) and 2.19.44 (WhatsApp Business) on Android and 2.19.51 on iPhone (iOS).
4. Client identities are a mystery
Although the NSO is at the center of the scandal, it is not yet known who would be the real perpetrators of the attack. This is because the company only claims to develop special software and sell it to third parties to the firm, so it would not have been responsible for initiating the attacks. The Israelis, however, deny that they were the creators of the virus that hit WhatsApp users, but do not disclose their client list. In a statement, they argue that they market products only to governments for the purpose of investigating criminals.
Murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi reportedly involved NSO software Photo: Reuters
5. This is the case of the journalist killed at the behest of the Saudi prince
This is not the first polymeric case in which NSO is involved. The Israeli firm gained notoriety in 2018 when Canadian NGO Citizen Lab discovered alleged company ties with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who died in October of that year at the Saudi embassy in Turkey. The crime was reportedly executed at the behest of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the Israeli group's spying tools to locate Khashoggi and organize the ambush at the embassy.
After the discovery, members of Citizen Lab were reportedly repeatedly targeted for espionage attempts, which is why the organization filed a lawsuit against the NSO. The Israeli company, again, denies its involvement in both the persecution of activists and the murder of the journalist.
6. Loss of board member and banned Facebook employees
Since Facebook announced its litigation against the NSO, at least one member of the company's board has decided to step down. It's Zamir Dahbash, CEO of a public relations firm working for the NSO and Mark Zuckerberg's company in Israel.
On the other hand, Facebook would be banning from its NSO-connected user networks. Employees, family members of employees and even former employees of the security firm reportedly had their Facebook and Instagram profiles terminated shortly after the lawsuit began. An alleged NSO employee even reported on a very popular forum in Israel that blockages on accounts reached 98% of the firm's employees.
7. Action in unprecedented justice
Even considering the seriousness of the prosecution against the NSO, experts consider the lawsuit filed by Facebook to be "unprecedented." A lawyer heard by Reuters He considers that such a measure is unlikely to be taken because it has the potential to generate deep discussion about the security level of messaging platforms, something that companies that develop such software, such as Facebook, have no interest in fostering.
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