WhatsApp sues Israeli spy company linked to Maltese citizen

WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group, an Israeli firm linked to ‘new’ Maltese citizen and alleged financial fraudster Anatoly Hurgin, for conducting cyber-attacks that infected devices with malicious software.

Hurgin, who bought Maltese citizenship under the cash-for-passports scheme in 2016, is currently facing charges of fraud, smuggling, and money laundering in Israel, as well as five violations of US Federal Law for defrauding shareholders of a Florida-based company.  

In an interview with Forbes, Hurgin described NSO Group as “one of the best companies in this field”, indicating that they had worked together, with his company Ability Inc handling the network side and NSO depositing malware on devices.

WhatsApp has accused the company of sending spyware to some 1400 mobile phones with the purpose of surveilling them. NSO Group denied the allegations.

In the court filing, WhatsApp said the malware was developed “to access messages and other communications after they were decrypted on target devices”. WhatsApp detected and stopped the “unauthorised access and abuse of the WhatsApp Service and computers” in May.

The NSO Group makes software for surveillance, including what Forbes called “the world’s most invasive mobile spy kit”, known as Pegasus. The software works by sending a message to the target phone, including a link. When the target clicks the link, Pegasus infiltrates the phone and collects all communications and locations, including communication sent through iMessage, Gmail, Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Skype.

WhatsApp said in a statement that “this attack targeted at least 100 members of civil society”, including journalists and human rights activists.

In 2018, the New York Times revealed that the Saudi authorities had used NSO Group software to spy on journalist Jamal Khashoggi prior to his murder. It was also used to spy on Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates, as well as to target journalists and activists in Panama, Mexico, Turkey, Kenya, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Qatar.

Anatoly Hurgin was the fifth new Maltese citizen to be charged with financial crimes in the last twelve months. The Shift reported that he was also subject to a lawsuit for violating the US Securities Act just three months before he was awarded Maltese citizenship.

The Maltese cash-for-passports scheme has been heavily criticised by the EU, Council of Europe, and the European Commission over concerns it could be used by criminals to facilitate money laundering and fraud in Member States.

The Shift has contacted Identity Malta and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on several occasions with questions about Hurgin, his activities, and his Maltese citizenship. No answers have been forthcoming.


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