On Monday, WhatsApp admitted a major cybersecurity breach that has enabled targeted spyware to be installed on phones through voice calls. The security vulnerability affects both iPhone and Android devices, with malicious code (allegedly) from Israel’s NSO Group, transmitted whether or not a user answers an infected call.
Facebook has suffered a multitude of security and privacy breaches in the last year, but this news that a government-grade intelligence collection application had targeted the company’s WhatsApp application is different. WhatsApp is Facebook’s flagship messaging application and is lauded for its end-to-end encryption, both for messaging and voice calls. As a result, it has become a standard communications platform for government and security officials in many countries around the world.
attack has all the hallmarks of a private company known to work with governments to deliver spyware that reportedly takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems. We have briefed a number of human rights organizations to share the information we can, and to work with them to notify civil society.”
WhatsApp engineers had been working round the clock to close the security loophole that was discovered early this month, and the company started to deploy a fix to servers on Friday and to customers on Monday. According to the Financial Times, a WhatsApp spokesperson said “a number in the dozens would not be inaccurate” in terms of impacted users.
The WhatsApp vulnerability is a buffer overflow weakness, enabling malicious code to be inserted into data packets sent during the process of starting a voice call. When the data is received, WhatsApp’s internal buffer is forced to overflow, overwriting other parts of the app’s memory, and control is given over to the application.
Or as Facebook somewhat drily said: “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 issue affects WhatsApp for Android prior to v2.19.134, WhatsApp Business for Android prior to v2.19.44, WhatsApp for iOS prior to v2.19.51, WhatsApp Business for iOS prior to v2.19.51, WhatsApp for Windows Phone prior to v2.18.348, and WhatsApp for Tizen prior to v2.18.15.”
Ironically, on Monday Amnesty International said that it was “supporting legal action to take the Israeli Ministry of Defence (MoD) to court, to demand that it revokes the export license of NSO Group, an Israeli company whose spyware products have been used in chilling attacks on human rights defenders around the world. In a petition to be filed tomorrow at the District Court of Tel Aviv, approximately 30 members and supporters of Amnesty International Israel and others from the human rights community set out how the MoD has put human rights at risk by allowing NSO to continue exporting its products.”
“NSO Group sells its products to governments who are known for outrageous human rights abuses, giving them the tools to track activists and critics,” said Amnesty’s Danna Ingleton. In August 2018, an Amnesty staff member was targeted by NSO’s Pegasus, software that has also been linked to attacks in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. “The attack on Amnesty International was the final straw,” Ingleton added.
NSO’s Pegasus software is intended for use by governments as a collection tool, enabling over the air access to devices. The software can target the microphone, camera and location data from a device, and has been described as the most sophisticated smartphone hack of all times. The fact that the Israeli company has been accused of selling the technology to countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE is clearly interesting given the geopolitical context.
NSO told the newspaper that it “vetted customers and investigated abuse”. Asked about the WhatsApp news, NSO said it was “investigating” and that “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.”
Whether this impacts the trust in the security of the WhatsApp application across its 1.5 billion users we are about to find out. It is unlikely. Albeit, again, the likes of Signal and Telegram will be major beneficiaries of this news, especially amongst groups of users where communications security is critical.
In a statement, WhatsApp said “we encourage people to upgrade to the latest version of our app, as well as keep their mobile operating system up to date, to protect against potential targeted exploits designed to compromise information stored on mobile devices.”
Good advice, albeit not much use when there are core vulnerabilities in the updated software itself.