Pakistan asks WhatsApp for details of users targeted by Israeli spyware

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has advised the public to upgrade the app by downloading its latest version, and to keep devices’ operating systems up to date in order to ‘avoid such incidents.’ (Shutterstock)
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Updated 22 December 2019

Pakistan asks WhatsApp for details of users targeted by Israeli spyware

  • Islamabad bars senior govt officials from sharing classified info on the app

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday asked WhatsApp to provide details of its users allegedly targeted by Israeli spyware in the country, and to update it on remedial measures to avoid a recurrence.

The development comes after NSO, an Israeli spyware firm, was sued by WhatsApp / Facebook on Oct. 29 for “violating both the US and California laws as well as the WhatsApp terms of service.”

A special type of malware named Pegasus was reportedly employed between April 28 and May 10 this year, affecting some 1,400 senior government and military officials in 20 countries, including Pakistan.

“Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has taken up the matter with the WhatsApp management,” the state-owned telecom regulator said in a statement on Friday.

“PTA intends to get the details of users who were targeted in Pakistan (along with) an update on the remedial measures taken by WhatsApp to prevent the occurrence of such hacking attempts in future.”

The PTA has advised the public to upgrade the app by downloading its latest version, and to keep devices’ operating systems up to date in order to “avoid such incidents.”

Quoting a confidential document, Arab News reported last month that the government had directed senior officials holding “sensitive portfolios and dealing with national security matters” not to share “official/classified information” on “WhatsApp or similar applications” for security reasons.

“The malware (Pegasus) is capable of infecting any mobile phone only by generating a missed call on the targeted WhatsApp number,” Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology said in a special advisory issued last month, a copy of which was made available to Arab News.

In order to minimize the possibility of any infections by Pegasus, the ministry also directed government functionaries to immediately replace all mobile phones purchased before May 10, 2019.

Against this backdrop, Pakistan is developing a local instant messaging app — an alternative to WhatsApp — to protect official data and sensitive information from hackers and hostile intelligence agencies.

“We’ve been working to improve our cybersecurity and develop a messaging app like WhatsApp for government officials,” Dr. Arslan Khalid, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s spokesman on digital media, told Arab News. 

“This local app will help us protect sensitive government data and other classified information from hostile spying agencies and hackers.”

The app, which is likely to cost about 1.3 billion Pakistani rupees ($8.37 million), will be launched by June 2020.

Officials at WhatsApp told media in October that senior government officials in multiple US-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with a hacking software that used the app to take over users’ phones. Victims were from the US, the UAE, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan, India and other nations.

Pakistan is ranked among the top seven countries for inadequate cybersecurity, with 25 percent of its mobile phones and 14.8 percent of computers infected with malware, according to a study conducted by technology site Comparitech.

Digital rights experts have urged the government to publish the list of officials whose WhatsApp accounts were compromised through the malware, for the sake of transparency.

“All public officials who communicate sensitive information (through WhatsApp) should be strictly asked to apply all digital security tools to protect their data and conversations from being hacked,” Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, told Arab News.

She said since WhatsApp is a private company, it is not accountable to any country or government, and might refuse to cooperate with Pakistan.

“Smartphones are surveillance devices and can be hacked through malware to listen to all conversations in real time. It’s also possible to take screenshots of what’s on display and copy all data in the device,” Dad added. 

She urged the government to make its “security protocols fool-proof for everyone, especially government functionaries.”


10-year-old Bangladeshi’s communication app creates buzz

Updated 20 January 2020

10-year-old Bangladeshi’s communication app creates buzz

  • “I thought we should have something of our own, which inspired me to start working on my communication app”: Ayman Al-Anam

DHAKA: A Bangladeshi fifth-grader’s new communication app — Lita Free Video Calls and Chat — has created a huge buzz among local internet users. Already, 10,500 people have downloaded the app from the Google Play Store since Saturday.

Ayman Al-Anam submitted the app to Google on Dec. 27. After scrutiny and manual verification, Google uploaded the app on its Play Store on Dec. 31.

 “Currently, Bangladeshi internet users are mostly dependent on apps like WhatsApp, Viber and Imo for communication overseas,” Al-Anam told Arab News.

“I thought we should have something of our own, which inspired me to start working on my communication app.”

It took the 10-year-old 10 months to create the app, which he said he accomplished by himself, without the help of any mentor. “I learned the process through different YouTube tutorials. The rest was just trial and error,” he added.

 The app provides better-quality, high-definition video calls to its users. It also works for transferring big data in a shorter amount of time compared to similar apps.

Al-Anam’s success at such an early age has surprised his parents. “From a very early age, my son had a knack for technology, and I encouraged him to pursue it. He used to spend his free time in front of computers, smartphones and other devices,” said proud father Tauhedush Salam Nishad. “I always supported him, but I never dreamed that he’d see this sort of success so young.”

Recalling the first successful test run of the new app, Nishad said: “One night, I returned home from work and Ayman took my smartphone and installed the raw file of the app. Later, he did the same with his mother’s phone and connected the two devices with a video call. It was the best moment in his life. He shouted with joy, ‘I did it!’” 

Al-Anam named the app after his mother Lita. The young inventor is currently studying at South Point School and College in Chattogram, 248 km from the capital. He dreams of becoming a software engineer and wants to work at
Google headquarters.

His creation has drawn much attention from local experts. “We should nurture this sort of extraordinary talent very carefully,” Prof. Mohammad Kaikobad of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology told Arab News.

 “This new generation will lead the technology world of tomorrow if they’re guided and
encouraged properly.”