FILE PHOTO: The WhatsApp messaging application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior government officials in multiple U.S.-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook Inc’s (FB.O) WhatsApp to take over users’ phones, according to people familiar with the messaging company’s investigation.
Sources familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation into the breach said a “significant” portion of the known victims are high-profile government and military officials spread across at least 20 countries on five continents.
The hacking of a wider group of top government officials’ smartphones than previously reported suggests the WhatsApp cyber intrusion could have broad political and diplomatic consequences.
WhatsApp filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Israeli hacking tool developer NSO Group. 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.
While it is not clear who used the software to hack officials’ phones, NSO says it sells its spyware exclusively to government customers.
Some victims are located in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan and India, said people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether victims from these countries included government officials.
The revelation comes as more than a dozen Indian journalists and human rights activists said on Thursday they were also targeted.
NSO did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Previously it has denied any wrongdoing, saying its products are only meant to help governments catch terrorists and criminals.
Reporting by Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter; Editing by Chris Sanders and Lisa Shumaker