ISLAMABAD: Government officials have been warned against replying to WhatsApp messages after security agencies identified malware to gain access to important government documents.

According to an official press release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on Friday, some hackers had attempted to gain access to mobile phones of senior bureaucrats by pretending to be government officials.

“The involved elements tried to acquire sensitive information from government officials and bureaucracy,” said the press release.

They also tried to seek information by sending malware through WhatsApp, it added.

A senior government official, who was privy to the hacking attempts, told Dawn that some joint secretaries and additional secretaries in different ministries received messages from hackers impersonating their bosses and other senior officials in various departments.

PMO says hackers posing as senior officials tried to extract sensitive info

In the messages, officials were asked to share important and sensitive documents.

The attempts were thwarted after officials brought the matter to the notice of their seniors, who denied sending any such messages.

After alarm bells were rung, the services of intelligence agencies were sought, which confirmed that the attempts were made by hackers.

According to the PMO, the government had instructed all officials to remain vigilant and not respond to any such messages.

The officers have also been directed to inform the cabinet division immediately after receiving such messages.

All security agencies were fully alert to deal with this matter, the press release added.

Government departments and state institutions have seen several hacking attempts in the recent past where hackers tried to gain access to critical data.

Last year, after the PM Office was rocked by a security breach that led to informal chats between officials — including former PM Imran Khan, then information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb and PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz — being leaked on social media, the government had formed bodies to probe the leaks,

consisting of members of intelligtence agencies such as Inter-Services Intelligence and the Intelligence Bureau.

In October 2022, then-interior minister Rana Sanaullah had claimed that some staff members of the PM House were found to be involved in the leaks, and no bugging or foreign involvement was suspected.

Media reports from the time mentioned two arrests, but these were not officially confirmed.

Mr Sanaullah had claimed at the time that the PM’s office was regularly debugged as per routine practice.

After that, a number of purported telephonic conversations of prominent politicians, lawyers and retired judges were also leaked on social media, after which PTI filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a probe into the audios.

A similar case is also pending before the IHC.

Prominent personalities whose audio recordings were leaked included ex-chief justice Saqib Nisar, Bushra Bibi and members of Imran Khan’s federal cabinet.

Then, last month, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the previous National Assembly directed the Ministry of Interior to investigate the leak of citizens’ and military officials’ data from the National Database and Registration Authority.

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2023

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