Straight out of the plot of a James Bond movie, our worst fears have been realized. Those who have watched Skyfall would recall how a villain sitting in a far-off island could maneuver everything in the world by hacking into the most secure systems on earth. Even the top security agency could not stand against the attacks.
In a real-world case, the largest messaging app, WhatsApp, recently admitted to having been hacked by an Israeli spyware, which has stolen public data. The software was provided by the NSO Group which was operating through its servers in the U.S. WhatsApp claims that in 2019 they hacked accounts of 1,400 people all belonging to prominent positions. Lawyers, human rights activists and journalists were some of the prime targets. As soon as WhatsApp realized about the presence of the spyware, they launched a lawsuit against the Israeli software providers. NSO has tried hard to get the court to drop the case; they even claimed that the software does not operate on U.S. soil. Regardless, the battle continues as the public comes under the threat of having their privacy stolen.
Under the cover of COVID-19 pandemic, in the dead of night, stealthily, on April 2, 2020, while the whole world was preoccupied with Coronavirus, the BJP-RSS regime unveiled an evil plan called new domicile rules to usurp the livelihoods, land and businesses from the people of IOJ&K. All without the consent of the people. It was a decree that emanated from New Delhi.
The Court Case by WhatsApp
Pegasus, the software that broke into WhatsApp, allows hackers to access your photos, messages, contacts, and almost everything that is happening on the phone. The software often takes the path of a voice call, which gains access to the user’s account. This can happen even without you accepting the call in general. That is why WhatsApp was quick to launch a court case against NSO as they claim the Israeli firm used U.S.-based servers to access the accounts of its users almost 700 times last year.
Whereas, NSO denies the accusations stating their services are not based in the U.S. Moreover, they have claimed that they are not responsible for launching such attacks, and this act falls onto the one using the software. They have even tried to dismiss the case on such grounds. They claim Pegasus helps the governments root out terrorism by allowing them to spy on specified targets. But due to WhatsApp’s accusations, their integrity is now under question as such a software has the ability to exploit its powers and abuse fundamental human rights. The case thus continues without any final verdict so far.
How Does Pegasus Work?
Pegasus exploits the weakness present within the code of any device or software by utilizing two main strategies. The first is the one-click vector, which sends you an SMS or message through a trustworthy source. When you click the source, it analyses your device via anonymizer for possible exploits, which will help it take control of the device. In case Pegasus fails to find any exploitation, it will redirect you to an actual website. This way, the user will not even suspect what just happened, and Pegasus will move on unnoticed.
Have you ever noticed a webpage opening suddenly on your phone when it wasn’t meant to open?
In the second strategy, it uses the zero-click vector, which does not require the user to click the malware. This is a destructive malware as there are no other examples of such kind seen before. It utilizes the push-message function to load a link sent through an SMS automatically. Even though there are preventive measures designed to stop this exploit, Pegasus has managed to sneak around those as well. Zero-click vectors can act through an incoming call as well, which, when ignored, can still access your device. The malware destroys any trace of the call from the log, and users are left unsuspecting that their device is now compromised.
According to technology writer Prasanto K. Roy, "If there's spyware in your handset, everything that is readable or even whatever comes through your camera or mic is at risk.”
In such a case, it doesn’t matter if your app, WhatsApp, in this case, is end-to-end encrypted or not. Once the spyware is on your device, hackers can see everything on your phone.
Can WhatsApp Security Measures Keep You Safe?
WhatsApp always encourages to keep the app and operating system up to date to protect against potential targeted exploits designed to compromise information stored on mobile devices.
However, as I have explained before how the malware utilizes one-click and zero-click vectors, these preventative methods would do little to stop it. WhatsApp needs to take care of the issues in its source code, as this is the gateway for Pegasus to infect other devices. Every time they come up with a solution, the malware will find new ways to exploit them. Even though the malware has the potential to infect all users, yet its attacks have been selective. 1400 devices were facing such attacks spreading out to almost 20 countries, most of which carried iOS — the most secure operating system can be exploited easily. Secondly, selective attacks mean that influential people are on Pegasus’ radar, and there is more to this security than we believe.
WhatsApp has no way of finding out which users are vulnerable. Therefore, it certainly has no way of finding out how its security measures fare against Pegasus.
The Indian Saga
WhatsApp also came under questioning by the Indian government after the data of its citizens came under attack. People were outraged and called out to boycott WhatsApp as the matter grew more serious.
Earlier the government denied any link with the Israeli spyware company, but later many government officials confessed to having dealings with the firm.
NSO always claims to help governments and intelligence agencies in order to root out terrorism. Yet the application of this malware can exceed such boundaries. A government that can spy on its citizens can also use the program to instigate propaganda in the world.
Malwares such as Pegasus can also be classified as weapons of war in this digital age. It doesn’t come cheap as it can cost from $8 million to $80 million, depending on the prospects. So, in India's case, it is safe to assume it was a big institution like the government that would have acquired its services. Plus, if the services are operational within the country, they can be operational outside as well.
If India uses Pegasus within its own physical boundary, it gives them ample opportunity to use it against countries like Pakistan, and why wouldn't they do it? After all, it's digital warfare.
Elsewhere in the World
Political maneuvering is a common tactic, and it happens around the world. Companies like NSO claim to offer the government the means to spy on their people, yet this can be used to rig public opinion, spreading false rumors against your competitors and gaining access to their private information. All these feats become possible by using softwares like Pegasus.
Ghana is also dealing with the aftermath of such incidents, as it passed sentences on three senior government officials. The accusation was of buying spyware from the controversial Israeli company. Within these officials, there was the former National Security Coordinator and Telecommunication Authority Director-General. Both of whom were facing a sentence for five years in prison for this illegal action. Moreover, a former board chairman of the telecommunication authority is in jail for a 6-year punishment for the same crime.
The officials were accused of spending $4 million on the Pegasus spyware, which was a significant loss to the country. To balance their losses, the court ordered the Attorney General to seize assets worth $3 million from the convicted.
Pakistani Scenerio and What It Can Do?
When the nations with the most sophisticated technology are helpless against such attacks, what can countries like Pakistan do?
A ban is one way of dealing with it. But what can we ban? WhatsApp? Facebook? No, this spyware doesn’t only exploit the loopholes inside an app, but also it seeks to make use of weaknesses inside Android and iOS systems. As long as these weaknesses exist, the malware will continue to spread through various applications. So, banning anything is not a solution.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan is vulnerable to those attacks. We need to take some drastic measures to prevent such malware attacks.
Since we are more concerned about public office holders here, general IT and security-related education are a must for everyone who carries out such duties. They need to know which links are safe to click on and which are not.
Secondly, the devices of all such position holders need to be protected with authentic anti-spyware and anti-malware. This will protect their devices from any unwanted intervention and prevent exploitation.
In this digital warfare, constant monitoring and digital security system can help keep an eye on what’s happening around. Secondly, the legal system should be improved and capacitated for handling digital issues more effectively. Since these crimes are committed in a borderless digital world, an international legal body for the redressal of digital violations can help determine the culprit.
The regular user, however, needs to take preventive measures to escape such damages. These measures include using the latest version of WhatsApp and Android to benefit from the latest security measures such as: always keep Google Protect active to root out malicious software; refrain from using WhatsApp payment solution, as they too can be vulnerable to Pegasus malware; and, do not share sensitive information over social media such as pictures, medical reports, or any other potentially harmful material.
The writer is a technology journalist and Editor-in-Chief of More Magazine and Outlook Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
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