Mobile phones belonging to at least two dozen Pakistani officials were compromised earlier this year by the Israeli spyware company NSO Group, according to a report by the Guardian.
It is believed that senior defence and intelligence officials were among those targeted by suspected hackers exploiting vulnerabilities on the popular messaging application WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook.
Although the report did not state who was behind the targeted intrusions, it did suggest that the details “are likely to fuel speculation that India could have been using NSO technology for domestic and international surveillance.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, is apparently “taking steps” to address the matter, but there has thus far not been an official confirmation by the government in Islamabad.
The discovery of the breach in May prompted WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, to file a lawsuit against NSO in October in which it accused the company of “unauthorised access and abuse” of its services.
The lawsuit claimed intended targets included “attorneys, journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, diplomats, and other senior foreign government officials”.
NSO has said it will vigorously contest the claim and has insisted that its technology is only used by law enforcement agencies around the world to snare criminals, terrorists and paedophiles.
The alleged targeting of Pakistani officials gives a first insight into how NSO’s signature “Pegasus” spyware could have been used for “state-on-state” espionage.
The details also raise fresh questions about how NSO’s clients use its spyware.
“This kind of spyware is marketed as designed for criminal investigations. But the open secret is that it also winds up being used for political surveillance and government-on-government spying,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, an academic research group located at the University of Toronto that has worked with WhatsApp to help identify victims of the alleged hacks.
“Spyware companies are clearly contributing to the proliferation of state-on-state technological espionage. No government seems particularly immune. This is probably further stretching the patience of governments around the world with this industry,” he added.
The Pakistani embassies in London and Washington declined multiple requests for comment. WhatsApp declined to comment