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 to file a lawsuit against NSO in October in which it accused the Israeli company of “unauthorised access and abuse” of its services. For its part, NSO has maintained that its technology is only used by law enforcement agencies globally to combat international organised crime and terrorists.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has itself been scrutinised about whether it has bought NSO technology after it emerged that 121 WhatsApp users in India were allegedly targeted earlier this year. Some of them were journalists and human rights activists.
Last month, Pakistani online news website Dawn reported that the federal Ministry of Information Technology had issued a confidential letter to the authorities affected by the breach, advising them not to use WhatsApp for official correspondence due to “hostile” intelligence agencies seeking to gain access to sensitive information stored in or communicated via mobile phones.
The ministry also advised government officials to discard all mobile phones purchased before 10 May this year.
Relations between India and Israel have developed significantly in recent years. In 2017, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel; he called his trip “ground breaking”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “historic”, saying that it would “deepen cooperation in a wide range of fields – security, agriculture, water, energy – basically in almost every field Israel is involved in.”
India remains Israel’s current biggest arms market, estimated to be worth about $1 billion annually.