Between the period July-September this year, Google issued a total 12,000 warnings against government-backed attacks globally. 500 of these warnings were issued in India alone. Google's revelations came at a time when WhatsApp is in the middle of a controversy caused by NSO Group-backed Pegasus spyware, which allegedly hacked into 1,400 WhatsApp accounts in the country. Google's Threat Analysis Group (TAG) tracks more than 270 targeted or government-backed groups from over 50 countries. However, Google did not name any entity in its recent blog post. TAG collects intelligence on intellectual property theft, targeting dissidents and activists, destructive cyberattacks and spreading coordinated disinformation.
"We've had a long-standing policy to send users warnings if we detect that they are the subject of state-sponsored phishing attempts, and have posted periodically about these before," Google said.
Google said from July to September 2019, it "sent more than 12,000 warnings to users in 149 countries that they were targeted by government-backed attackers". As per the heatmap on the distribution of government-backed phishing targets in Q3 2019, Indian users had received about 500 such warnings. Google uses the intelligence it gathers from such information in order to better protect its infrastructure as well as users targeted with serious cybersecurity threats like phishing or malware. Meanwhile, Google said this quarter was consistent with the number of warnings sent in the same period of 2017 and 2018.
"Over 90 per cent of these users were targeted via 'credential phishing emails'... These are usually attempts to obtain the target's password or other account credentials to hijack their account. We encourage high-risk users - like journalists, human rights activists, and political campaigns - to enroll in our Advanced Protection Program (APP)," Google said.
APP uses hardware security keys to provide its users with the strongest possible protections available against phishing and account hijackings.
Last month, WhatsApp had disclosed that Pegasus spyware was used by unnamed entities to snoop on about 1,400 users globally, including 121 users from India. Israeli intelligence software company NSO Group is behind the Pegasus spying software. In its statement, NSO Group had said it only sold its "technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime" and is not "designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists". However, the government has maintained that it has no dealings with NSO.
Last week, WhatsApp had written to the Indian government expressing "regret" over the snooping row, and assured that it is taking all security measures to address concerns.
(With agency inputs)