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Exclusive: WhatsApp hacked to spy on leading US government officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – High-ranking government officials in several US-allied countries were attacked earlier this year with hacking software used by Facebook's WhatsApp to take over users' phones, according to people involved in the messaging Company are familiar.

FILE PHOTO: The WhatsApp messaging application will appear on a phone screen on August 3, 2017. REUTERS / Thomas White / File Photo

Sources familiar with WhatsApp's in-house investigations into security breaches said a "significant" portion of the known victims are high-profile government and military officials scattered across at least 20 countries on five continents ,

Hacking a larger group of smartphones from top government officials than previously indicated suggests that WhatsApp's intrusion into the Internet could have far-reaching political and diplomatic consequences.

WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against Israeli hacking tool developer NSO Group on Tuesday. The software giant owned by Facebook states that the NSO Group has built and sold a hacking platform that exploits a flaw in WhatsApp's own servers to help customers connect to the phones of at least 1,400 users chop.

Although it is unclear who used the software to hack the phones of officials, NSO claims to sell its spyware exclusively to government customers.

Some victims are in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan and India, said people who are familiar with the investigation. Reuters was unable to verify that victims from these countries were government officials.

The revelation comes when more than a dozen Indian journalists and human rights activists on Thursday said they had also been targeted.

NSO did not respond immediately to a request for a comment. Previously, it denied any wrongdoing and stated that its products should only serve to assist governments in detecting terrorists and criminals.

In recent years, cybersecurity researchers have discovered that NSO products are used against a variety of targets, including demonstrators in authoritarian countries. However, the use of these tools for high-profile politicians is less well-known.

An independent research group called CitizenLab, working with WhatsApp, said at least 100 of the victims are journalists and dissidents, not criminals.

WhatsApp sent warning messages to affected users earlier this week.

"It is an open secret that many law enforcement technologies are used for state and political espionage," said John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at CitizenLab.

Prior to notifying victims, WhatsApp reviewed the target list against existing law enforcement requests for information related to criminal investigations such as terrorism or cases of child exploitation. However, the company has not identified any overlaps, a person familiar with the matter said. Governments can send such requests for information to WhatsApp via a corporate-managed online portal.

WhatsApp did not identify the customers of the NSO Group who ultimately selected the targets.

coverage by Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter; Edited by Chris Sanders and Lisa Shumaker

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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