FILE - This Friday, March 10, 2017, file photo shows the WhatsApp communications app on a smartphone, in New York. WhatsApp says a vulnerability in the popular communications app let mobile phones be infected with sophisticated spyware with a missed in-app call alone. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

WhatsApp discovers spyware that infected with a call alone

The malware was able to penetrate phones through missed calls alone via the app’s voice calling function

Spyware crafted by a sophisticated group of hackers-for-hire took advantage of a flaw in the popular WhatsApp communications program to remotely hijack dozens of phones, the company said late Monday.

The Financial Times identified the actor as Israel’s NSO Group, and WhatsApp all but confirmed the identification, describing hackers as “a private company that has been known to work with governments to deliver spyware.” A spokesman for the Facebook subsidiary later said: “We’re certainly not refuting any of the coverage you’ve seen.”

The malware was able to penetrate phones through missed calls alone via the app’s voice calling function, the spokesman said. An unknown number of people — an amount in the dozens at least would not be inaccurate — were infected with the malware, which the company discovered in early May, said the spokesman, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.

John Scott-Railton, a researcher with the internet watchdog Citizen Lab, called the hack “a very scary vulnerability.”

“There’s nothing a user could have done here, short of not having the app,” he said.

The spokesman said the flaw was discovered while “our team was putting some additional security enhancements to our voice calls” and that engineers found that people targeted for infection “might get one or two calls from a number that is not familiar to them. In the process of calling, this code gets shipped.”

WhatsApp, which has more than 1.5 billion users, immediately contacted Citizen Lab and human rights groups, quickly fixed the issue and pushed out a patch. He said WhatsApp also provided information to U.S. law enforcement officials to assist in their investigations.

“We are deeply concerned about the abuse of such capabilities,” WhatsApp said in a statement.

NSO said in a statement that its technology is used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies to fight “crime and terror.”

“We investigate any credible allegations of misuse and if necessary, we take action, including shutting down the system,” the statement said. A spokesman for Stephen Peel, whose private equity firm Novalpina recently announced the purchase of part of NSO, did not return an email seeking comment.

The revelation adds to the questions over the reach of the Israeli company’s powerful spyware, which takes advantage of digital flaws to hijack smartphones, control their cameras and effectively turn them into pocket-sized surveillance devices.

NSO’s spyware has repeatedly been found deployed to hack journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and dissidents. Most notably, the spyware was implicated in the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year and whose body has never been found.

Several alleged targets of the spyware, including a close friend of Khashoggi and several Mexican civil society figures, are currently suing NSO in an Israeli court over the hacking.

Monday, Amnesty International — which said last year that one its staffers was also targeted with the spyware — said it would join in a legal bid to force Israel’s Ministry of Defence to suspend NSO’s export license.

That makes the discovery of the vulnerability particularly disturbing because one of the targets was a U.K.-based human rights lawyer, the attorney told the AP.

The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for professional reasons, said he received several suspicious missed calls over the past few months, the most recent one on Sunday, only hours before WhatsApp issued the update to users fixing the flaw.

In its statement, NSO said it “would not or could not” use its own technology to target “any person or organization, including this individual.”

___

Online:

Frank Bajak: http://twitter.com/fbajak ,

Raphael Satter: http://twitter.com/razhael

Frank Bajak And Raphael Satter, The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Man praying “loudly” prompts call to Trail RCMP

Trail and Greater District RCMP news brief from Sgt. Mike Wicentowich

Pandemic poses perfect time for makeover of historic Trail landmark

The Colombo Lodge has had many updates to the exterior and interior since it first opened in 1927

COVID-19 offers unique opportunity to make communities safer

Letter to the Editor from Crime Stoppers/Bolo Program

Pandemic will bring long-lasting changes to Canada

Column by Richard Cannings, South Okanagan-West Kootenay MP

Daisy campaign raises $16,520 for cancer care in Trail

Money given to health foundation for end-0f-life care at KBRH

B.C. records no new COVID-19 deaths for the first time in weeks

Good news comes despite 11 new test-positive cases in B.C. in the past 24 hours

BC Corrections to expand list of eligible offenders for early release during pandemic

Non-violent offenders are being considered for early release through risk assessment process

Fraser Valley driver featured on ‘Highway Thru Hell’ TV show dies

Monkhouse died Sunday night of a heartattack, Jamie Davis towing confirmed

B.C. visitor centres get help with COVID-19 prevention measures

Destination B.C. gearing up for local, in-province tourism

36 soldiers test positive for COVID-19 after working in Ontario, Quebec care homes

Nearly 1,700 military members are working in long-term care homes overwhelmed by COVID-19

B.C. poison control sees spike in adults, children accidentally ingesting hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer sales and usage have gone up sharply amid COVID-19 pandemic

B.C. man with Alberta plates gets car keyed and aggressive note

Some out-of-province people are finding hostile reception due to COVID-19 worries

Most Read