WhatsApp Penetrated By Spyware

Hackers have installed surveillance software on phones and other appliances exploiting a major weakness in Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging platform.

The spyware, which was created by NSO Group, a secretive Israeli software business, has been used to monitor telephone calls and to infect operations systems. Facebook, say the attack has targeted a "select number" of users, and was stage-managed by "an advanced cyber actor". 

WhatsApp have said that the problems were uncovered this month and have quickly been addressed and the software up-dated. A remedy fix was issued on Friday 10th May. Apparently the attack was built by the Israeli security firm NSO Group. 

On Monday the 13th May, WhatsApp urged all of its 1.5 billion users to update their apps as an added precaution. 
The company has also alerted US law enforcement to the exploit, and published a ‘CVE Notice’, an advisory to other cybersecurity experts alerting them to “common vulnerabilities and exposures”.

WhatsApp promotes itself as a "secure" communications app because messages are end to end encrypted, meaning they should only be displayed in a legible form on the sender or recipient's device. 

However, the surveillance software would have let an attacker read the messages on the target's device. 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. 

WhatsApp told the BBC its 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 [voice over internet protocol] stack allowed remote code execution via specially crafted series of SRTCP (secure real-time transport protocol) packets sent to a target phone number.” 

Prof. Alan Woodward from the University of Surrey said it was a "pretty old-fashioned" method of attack.

"In a buffer overflow, an app is allocated more memory than it actually needs, so it has space left in the memory. If you are able to pass some code through the app, you can run your own code in that area," he explained.

"In VOIP there is an initial process that dials up and establishes the call, and the flaw was in that bit. Consequently, you did not need to answer the call for the attack to work."

Some users of the app have questioned why the app store notes associated with the latest update are not explicit about the fix.

Who is behind the Software?
The NSO Group is an Israeli company that has been referred to in the past as a "cyber-arms dealer". The business is part-owned by the London-based private equity firm Novalpina Capital, which acquired a stake in February. NSO's 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 authorised 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 organisation."

Who has been Targeted?
WhatsApp said it was too early to know how many users had been affected by the vulnerability, although it added that suspected attacks were highly-targeted. Amnesty International - which said it had been targeted by tools created by the NSO Group in the past - said this attack was one human rights groups had long feared was possible.

"They're able to infect your phone without you actually taking an action," said Danna Ingleton, deputy programme director for Amnesty Tech. She said there was mounting evidence that the tools were being used by regimes to keep prominent activists and journalists under surveillance.

"There needs to be some accountability for this, it can't just continue to be a wild west, secretive industry."

On Tuesday 14th May, a Tel Aviv court will hear a petition led by Amnesty International that calls for Israel's Ministry of Defence to revoke the NSO Group's licence to export its products. WhatsApp has about 1.5bn users around the world. The messaging app uses end-to-end encryption, making it popular and secure for activists and dissidents. 

Guardian:          BBC

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