WhatsApp vulnerability allowed government-grade spyware to be installed on phones

Sergio Conner
May 15, 2019

"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", said a spokesperson for WhatsApp, which did not name the private company.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International is behind legal action to revoke the NSO Group's export licence in Israel, after an Amnesty staff member was targeted last August by Pegasus.

"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 have briefed a number of human rights organisations to share the information we can, and to work with them to notify civil society.

Spyware crafted by an "advanced cyber actor" infected multiple targeted mobile phones through the WhatsApp messaging service without any user intervention through in-app voice calls.

The Financial Times reported that a vulnerability in WhatsApp allowed attackers to inject spyware on phones by ringing up targets using the app's phone call function.

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According to the Financial Times, the spyware was developed by an Israeli intelligence company called NSO Group and allowed the attackers to transmit the spyware by infecting a call.

WhatsApp was targeted by an Israeli company that provides hacking tools to Saudi Arabia and installed malware on targets phones by simply calling their number, according to reports. The company said it has also contacted USA law enforcement.

In a statement, NSO Group said its technology "is licensed to authorised government agencies for the sole goal of fighting crime and terror". Cybersecurity experts warned that the breach demonstrates that even encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, widely believed to be safe from interception, can also be accessed.

Some phones will receive a notification message from WhatsApp, urging you to update the software to the latest available version.

The vulnerability affected users of WhatsApp on all platforms, meaning you need to update your app immediately if you still have one of the versions prior to the following. For Android devices, that involves opening the Google Play store, and looking in "My Apps & Games" to see if WhatsApp needs updating or not. While the perpetrators are yet to be identified, a Middle Eastern country is now under suspicion, known for suppressing criticism of its human rights practices as the targets of this attack seem to be human rights lawyers and activists.

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