WhatsApp on Tuesday sued Israeli technology firm NSO Group, accusing it of using the Facebook-owned messaging service to conduct cyber espionage on journalists, human rights activists and others.
On Thursday, a report in The Indian Express report said that WhatsApp confirmed that Indian journalists, academics, activists and lawyers were also targeted in the cyber attack.
What does this mean?
The targeted individuals in India, estimated to be around two dozen, and reportedly across the world had two weeks of state-of-the-art surveillance on them through WhatsApp.
The suit filed in a California federal court contended that NSO Group tried to infect approximately 1,400 “target devices” with malicious software to steal valuable information from those using the messaging app.
WhatsApp head Will Cathcart said the lawsuit was filed after an investigation showed the Israeli firm’s role the cyberattack, despite its denials.
The Indian Express report said that WhatsApp declined to reveal the identities and “exact number” of those targeted in India, however, each of the targeted indivdiuals were contacted and informed of the hack.
“Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said to The Indian Express.
When did all this happen?
The malicious code was transmitted through WhatsApp servers from about April 29 to May 10, targeting devices of attorneys, journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, diplomats, and other senior foreign government officials, according to the complaint.
"A user would receive what appeared to be a video call, but this was not a normal call," Cathcart said of the cyberattack.
"After the phone rang, the attacker secretly transmitted malicious code in an effort to infect the victim's phone with spyware. The person did not even have to answer the call."
The lawsuit said the software developed by NSO known as Pegasus was designed to be remotely installed to hijack devices using the Android, iOS, and BlackBerry operating systems.
The complaint said the attackers “reverse-engineered the WhatsApp app and developed a program to enable them to emulate legitimate WhatsApp network traffic in order to transmit malicious code” to take over the devices.
“While their attack was highly sophisticated, their attempts to cover their tracks were not entirely successful,” Cathcart said in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, noting that the investigation found internet-hosting services and accounts associated with NSO.
The suit calls on court to order NSO Group to stop any such attacks and asks for unspecified damages. WhatsApp is the world's most popular communications software, with about 1.5 billion users in 180 countries.
The firm has been adamant that it only licenses its software to governments for "fighting crime and terror" and that it investigates credible allegations of misuse, but activists argue the technology has been instead used for human rights abuses.
Its best-known product is Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target's phone camera and microphone, and access data on it.