Surveillance Attack on WhatsApp

By May 17, 2019News

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It has been reported that it was a surveillance attack on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app that caused the company to urge all of its 1.5bn users to update their apps as an extra precaution recently.

What Kind of Attack?

Technical commentators have identified the attack on WhatsApp as a ‘zero-day’ exploit that is used to load spyware onto the victim’s phone.  Once the victim’s WhatsApp has been hijacked and the spyware loaded onto the phone, it can, for example, access encrypted chats, access photos, contacts and other information, as well as being able to eavesdrop on calls, and even turn on the microphone and camera.  It has been reported that the exploit can also alter the call logs and hide the method of infection.

How?

The attack is reported to be able to use the WhatsApp’s voice calling function to ring a target’s device. Even if the target person doesn’t pick the call up the surveillance software can be installed, and the call can be wiped from the device’s call log.  The exploit can happen by using a buffer overflow weakness in the WhatsApp VOIP stack which enables an overwriting of other parts of the app’s memory.

It has been reported that the vulnerability is present in the Google Android, Apple iOS, and Microsoft Windows Phone builds of WhatsApp.

Who?

According to reports in the Financial Times which broke the story of the WhatsApp attack (which was first discovered earlier this month), Facebook had identified the likely attackers as a private Israeli company, The NSO Group, that is part-owned by the London-based private equity firm Novalpina Capital.  According to reports, The NSO Group are known to work with governments to deliver spyware, and one of their main products called Pegasus can collect intimate data from a targeted device.  This can include capturing data through the microphone and camera and also gathering location data.

Denial

The NSO Group have denied responsibility.  NSO has said that their technology is only licensed to authorised government intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of fighting crime and terror, and that NSO wouldn’t or couldn’t use the technology in its own right to target any person or organisation.

Past Problems

WhatsApp has been in the news before for less than positive reasons.  For example, back in November 2017, WhatsApp was used by ‘phishing’ fraudsters to circulate convincing links for supermarket vouchers in order to obtain bank details.

Fix?

As a result of the attack, as well as urging all of its 1.5bn users to update their apps, engineers at Facebook have created a patch for the vulnerability (CVE-2019-3568).

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Many of us think of WhatsApp as being an encrypted message app, and therefore somehow more secure. This story shows that WhatsApp vulnerabilities are likely to have existed for some time.  Although it is not clear how many users have been affected by this attack, many tech and security commentators think that it may have been a focused attack, perhaps of a select group of people.

It is interesting that we are now hearing about the dangers of many attacks being perhaps linked in some way to states and state-sponsored groups rather than individual actors, and the pressure is now on big tech companies to be able to find ways to guard against these more sophisticated and evolving kinds of attacks and threats that are potentially on a large scale.  It is also interesting how individuals could be targeted by malware loaded in a call that the recipient doesn’t even pick up, and it perhaps opens up the potential for new kinds of industrial espionage and surveillance.

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