Messaging app WhatsApp has said Indian journalists and activists are among some 1,400 people worldwide who were targeted with Israeli-made spyware.
WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO Group on Wednesday, alleging it was behind cyber-attacks that infected devices in April and May.
The Israeli company, which makes software for surveillance, has strongly disputed the allegations.
India has 400 million WhatsApp users, making the country its biggest market.
Hackers were able to remotely install surveillance software on phones and other devices by using a major vulnerability in the messaging app.
“We believe this attack targeted at least 100 members of civil society, which is an unmistakable pattern of abuse,” WhatsApp said in a statement.
After discovering the cyber-attacks in May, WhatsApp quickly rolled out a fix, adding “new protections” to their systems and issuing updates.
Cyber experts at Toronto-based internet watchdog Citizen Lab helped WhatsApp identify cases where the suspected targets of this attack were members of civil society, such as human rights defenders or journalists.
Citizen Lab said it had identified more than 100 cases of “abusive targeting of human rights defenders and journalists in at least 20 countries across the globe, ranging from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America”.
“Indian journalists and human rights activists have been the target of surveillance and while I cannot reveal their identities and the exact number, I can say that it is not an insignificant number,” WhatsApp spokesperson Carl Woog told The Indian Express newspaper.
Mr Woog said the service had contacted each of the people targeted and informed them about the cyber attack.
WhatsApp promotes itself as a “secure” communications app because messages are encrypted end-to-end. This means they should only be displayed in a legible form on the sender or recipient’s device.
The firm, which was acquired by Facebook in 2014, said this was the first time an encrypted messaging provider had taken legal action of this kind.
Israel’s NSO Group said it would fight the allegations.
“In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them,” the company said in a statement to the BBC.
Microsoft does more research and development in China than it does anywhere else outside the United States. But, as US-China relations continue to sour on issues of trade and cyber-security, the decades-long ties Microsoft has in China are coming under close scrutiny.
“The question is, how do you ensure that these weapons don’t get created? I think there are multiple mechanisms. The first thing is we, as creators, should start with having a set of ethical design principles to ensure that we’re creating AI that’s fair, that’s secure, that’s private, that’s not biased.”
He said he felt his company had sufficient control over how the controversial emerging technologies are used, and said the firm had turned down requests in China – and elsewhere – to engage in projects it felt were inappropriate, due to either technical infeasibility or ethical concerns.
“We also recognise whether it’s in the United States, whether it’s in China, whether it’s in the United Kingdom, they will all have their own legislative processes on what they accept or don’t accept, and we will abide by them.”
‘Leaves me wondering…’
Matt Sheehan, from the Paulson Institute, studies the relationship between California’s technology scene and the Chinese economy. He said Microsoft’s efforts, particularly its Beijing office, have had tremendous impact.
“It dramatically advanced the field, advances that have helped the best American and European AI research labs push further,” he said.
“But those same advances feed into the field of computer vision, a key enabler of China’s surveillance apparatus.”
He cites one particular paper as highlighting the complexity of working with, and within, China. Deep Residual Learning for Image Recognition
According to Google Scholar, which indexes research papers, their paper was cited more than 25,256 times between 2014-2018 – more than any other paper in any other field of research.
“The lead author now works for a US tech company in California,” said Mr Sheehan, referring to Facebook.
“Two other authors work for a company involved in Chinese surveillance. And the last author is trying to build autonomous vehicles in China.
“What do we make of all that? Honestly, it leaves me – and I think it should leave others – scratching their heads and wondering.”