Extreme closeup image of WhatsApp on smartphone.

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Facebook and its WhatsApp messenger division on Tuesday sued Israel-based spyware maker NSO Group. This is an unprecedented legal action that takes aim at the unregulated industry that sells sophisticated malware services to governments around the world. NSO vigorously denied the allegations.

Over an 11-day span in late April and early May, the suit alleges, NSO targeted about 1,400 mobile phones that belonged to attorneys, journalists, human-rights activists, political dissidents, diplomats, and senior foreign government officials. To infect the targets with NSO's advanced and full-featured spyware, the company exploited a critical WhatsApp vulnerability that worked against both iOS and Android devices. The clickless exploit was delivered when attackers made a video call. Targets need not have answered the call or taken any other action to be infected.

Routing malware through WhatsApp servers

According to the complaint, NSO created WhatsApp accounts starting in January 2018 that initiated calls through WhatsApp servers and injected malicious code into the memory of targeted devices. The targeted phones would then use WhatsApp servers to connect to malicious servers allegedly maintained by NSO. The complaint, filed in federal court for the Northern District of California, stated:

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