WhatsApp discovers ‘targeted’ surveillance attack

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WhatsApp discovers ‘targeted’ surveillance attack
WhatsApp discovers ‘targeted’ surveillance attack


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WhatsApp has 1.5bn users, but it believed the attacks were highly-targeted

Hackers were able to remotely install surveillance software on phones and other devices using a major vulnerability in messaging app WhatsApp, it has been confirmed.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, said the attack targeted a “select number” of users, and was orchestrated by “an advanced cyber actor”.

A fix was rolled out on Friday.

On Monday WhatsApp urged all of its 1.5bn users to update their apps as an added precaution.

The attack, discovered earlier this month, was first reported in the Financial Times.

It involved attackers using WhatsApp’s voice calling function to ring a target’s device. Even if the call was not picked up, the surveillance software would be installed, and, the FT reported, the call would often disappear from the device’s call log.

The BBC understands WhatsApp’s security team was the first to identify the flaw, and shared that information with human rights groups, selected security vendors and the US Department of Justice earlier this month.

“The attack has all the hallmarks of a private company reportedly that works with governments to deliver spyware that takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems,” the company said on Monday in a briefing document note for journalists.

The firm also published an advisory to security specialists, in which it described the flaw as: “A buffer overflow vulnerability in WhatsApp VOIP stack allowed remote code execution via specially crafted series of SRTCP packets sent to a target phone number.”

The FT reported that the attack was developed by Israeli security firm NSO Group, a company that has been referred to in the past as a “cyber arms dealer”.

Its flagship software, Pegasus, has the ability to collect intimate data from a target device, including capturing data through the microphone and camera, and gathering location data.

In a statement, the group said: “NSO’s technology is licensed to authorized government agencies for the sole purpose of fighting crime and terror.

“The company does not operate the system, and after a rigorous licensing and vetting process, intelligence and law enforcement determine how to use the technology to support their public safety missions. We investigate any credible allegations of misuse and if necessary, we take action, including shutting down the system.

“Under no circumstances would NSO be involved in the operating or identifying of targets of its technology, which is solely operated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. NSO would not or could not use its technology in its own right to target any person or organization, including this individual.”

WhatsApp said it was too early to know how many users had been affected by the vulnerability, although suspected attacks were highly-targeted.

According to Facebook’s latest figures, WhatsApp has around 1.5bn users worldwide.

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Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

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