No Israeli government involvement in alleged NSO-WhatsApp hack: minister

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli government on Friday denied any involvement in an alleged cyber- hack by Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group.

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Distancing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government from the alleged attempts to send malware to the mobile devices of a number of Whatsapp users, Israeli security cabinet minister Zeev Elkin said that if anyone had done anything “forbidden” they could expect to find themselves in court.

“NSO is a private player using capabilities that Israelis have, thousands of people are in the cyber field, but there is no Israeli government involvement here, everyone understands that, this is not about the state of Israel,” Elkin told 102.FM Tel Aviv Radio.

On Tuesday, WhatsApp sued NSO Group accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users across four continents in a hacking spree whose targets included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.

The Facebook-owned software giant alleges that NSO Group built and sold a hacking platform that exploited a flaw in WhatsApp-owned servers to help clients hack into the cellphones of at least 1,400 users between April 29, 2019, and May 10, 2019.

On Thursday Reuters reported that senior government officials in many U.S.-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used WhatsApp to take over users’ phones, according to people familiar with the messaging company’s investigation.

NSO has denied the allegations “in the strongest possible terms,” saying it would fight them “vigorously.”

WhatsApp is used by 1.5 billion people monthly and has often touted a high level of security, including end-to-end encrypted messages that cannot be deciphered by WhatsApp or other third parties.

In his radio interview Elkin said “I don’t see any political fallout from this incident.”

He added: “It is true that when people do things that are forbidden - I have no way of determining whether they did indeed do anything forbidden - then the justice system here and in other countries will throw the book at them.

Reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan