WhatsApp discovers surveillance “Hack Attack”, blames it on Israeli firm

WhatsApp hack Attack

WhatsApp has recently been targeted by hackers, whom were able to install surveillance software on phones and other devices. WhatsApp are now pointing fingers at an Israeli based firm, after confirming that an advanced hacking group had developed a tool which had the ability to take control over victims’ phones by sending them a call, whether you answered the call, or not.

WhatsApp said the attacks had the same trademarks of a private surveillance technology firm, which reportedly works with governments to install spyware that takes over a mobile phone’s operating system.

While the company did not name the firm, its statement matched with the organisation. The firm in question, The NSO Group, have previously been accused by numerous human rights organisations of working with restrictive establishments for the purpose of targeting dissidents.

A large number of WhatsApp users, those of which included human rights organisations and a UK lawyer, are reported to be targeted by the hack after the attackers exploited a major vulnerability in the app.

It was through WhatsApp’s voice call function where hackers were able to install the spyware, the company confirmed. Unfortunately, this hacking method would still be able to accomplished even if the victim did not answer the call.

The company has now urged its users to update the app following the the cyber surveillance attack.

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Credit: Livemint

The breach was discovered in early May, and while the issue has been fixed, it has still urged its users to update the app to the latest version.

WhatsApp say they were targeted by an “advanced cyber actor” and worked with Toronto-based Citizen Lab to perform a patch to fix the problem.

Engineers who worked on fixing the issue said that targeted users may have had one or two missed calls from an unrecognised number. However, they did not have to answer the call in order for the code to be “shipped”, and in some cases, a missed call notification was wiped.

WhatsApp discovered the attack when it placed additional security enhancements on their voice calls. Citizen Lab said an attacker had attempted to exploit the app as early as Sunday evening, but was promptly blocked.

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

The Financial Times reported that the spyware was developed and installed by NSO group, an Isreal-based cybersecurity and intelligence company. However, the NSO group deny any involvement in the cyber attack.

“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” the firm stated.

“NSO would not, or could not, use its technology in its own right to target any person or organisation, including this individual (the UK lawyer).”

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Credit: Creative Tech

Despite the denial, the NSO Group’s spyware has frequently been accused of hacking journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and dissidents. The most serious case was when the spyware was involved in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

The NSO are being sued by the alleged targets at the time, including a friend of Khashoggi and numerous Mexican civil society figures.

Dana Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty International Tech, tweeted: “Just to reiterate, this means ‘zero click’ targeting is actually happening. Now, more than ever, we need some accountability from this company and better Due Diligence processes in the industry.”

“NSO Group sells its products to governments who are known for outrageous human rights abuses, giving them the tools to track activists and critics.” she added.

A spokesman for the National Cyber Security Council (NCSC) stated: “WhatsApp have today announced a vulnerability that could have allowed users’ phones to be compromised.”

“The company has reportedly said that a small number of accounts have been affected and has told its users to update their apps using standard updates from the app store as a precaution.”

“The NCSC has published guidance for users and always recommends that people protect their device by installing updates as soon as they become available. The NCSC also recommends that people switch on automatic updates to install them as quickly as possible.”

The National Crime Agency said it had not received a criminal report, but say it is working with the NCSC to perceive any UK implications.

In the meantime, if you are a WhatsApp user, it is strongly recommended that you ensure the app is updated for the latest security updates.

So, will you be updating your WhatsApp or will you be throwing caution to the wind? However, wasn’t WhatsApp supposed to be offering an encrypted calls and messaging service?

Perhaps it still does, but seemingly not in this particular “hacking” case, where the culprits behind the attack, can still not be fully identified, neither confirmed, as being 100% behind the hack of WhatsApp. But surely, there will be more to this hacking story in weeks to come.


Story by Emily Clark

Featured Photo Credit: DigitalTrends 

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