(Bloomberg) — A pitch for cellphone hacking technology sent to the San Diego Police Department in 2016 may add a new wrinkle to a lawsuit between WhatsApp and Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO Group.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc., sued NSO Group last year over claims it illegally used WhatsApp servers to send malware in an attempt to hack hundreds of cellphones. The Israeli firm is pushing to have the suit thrown out, claiming that it’s not a U.S. company and not under U.S. legal jurisdiction.
But documents published Tuesday by Vice show that Bethesda, Maryland-based Westbridge Technologies pitched a cellphone hacking service dubbed Phantom to the San Diego Police Department while claiming to be the “North American branch of NSO Group.”
In a sworn statement submitted as part of the WhatsApp lawsuit, NSO Group Chief Executive Officer Shalev Hulio said that Westbridge technologies is “neither NSO’s subsidiary nor its arm.” NSO Group says it’s the subsidiary company of Q Cyber Technologies, which was also named by WhatsApp in its lawsuit.
According to the LinkedIn page of Terry Divittorio, the former president of Westbridge Technologies, the company is “the U.S. affiliate of Q Cyber Technologies.”
In its lawsuit, WhatsApp claimed that NSO technology was used to target a phone number with a Washington D.C. area code.
NSO Group said in a statement Tuesday that “products sold to foreign sovereigns cannot be used to conduct cybersurveillance within the United States, and no customer has ever been granted technology which enables targeting phones with U..S numbers.” The company also reiterated that “Westbridge Technologies shares a parent company with NSO but is neither NSO’s subsidiary nor its ‘arm.’ NSO exercises no control over Westbridge Technologies.”
According to emails provided to Bloomberg News by the San Diego Police Department, the force never purchased the Phantom product, which claims to “turn your target’s cellphone into an intelligence goldmine,” because it was too expensive.
“The San Diego Police Department quite often engages in conversations with vendors who are attempting to sell a product or service so that we can provide the highest quality of police services to our communities,” Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email. Takeuchi said that a search warrant would need to be obtained before the department would be able to use the product.
The technology pitched by Westbridge closely resembles NSO Group’s best-known product called Pegasus. They both offer the ability to collect data, like GPS and text messages, without a user knowing about it.
When asked for comment on the Vice documents, WhatsApp pointed to a previous statement it has made about the lawsuit: “There must be strong legal oversight of cyber weapons like the one used in this attack to ensure they are not used to violate individual rights and freedoms people deserve wherever they are in the world,” the statement says. “Human rights groups have documented a disturbing trend that such tools have been used to attack journalists and human rights defenders.”
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