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WhatsApp discovers ‘highly targeted’ surveillance attack

By Dave Lee, North America Technology reporter

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WhatsApp has 1.5bn users, but it believed the attacks were highly-targeted. * GETTY

(BBC) — Hackers were able to remotely install surveillance software on phones and other devices using a major vulnerability in messaging app WhatsApp, it has been confirmed.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, said the attack targeted a “select number” of users, and was orchestrated by “an advanced cyber actor”.

A fix was rolled out on Friday.

The attack was developed by Israeli security firm NSO Group, according to a report in the Financial Times.

On Monday WhatsApp urged all of its 1.5bn users to update their apps as an added precaution.

The attack was first discovered earlier this month.

How was the security flaw used?

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 stack allowed remote code execution via specially crafted series of SRTCP packets sent to a target phone number.”

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”.

Its 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.

According to Facebook’s latest figures, WhatsApp has around 1.5bn users worldwide.

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, 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.

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3 comments

  1. One must never come to expect to have any kind of privacy when you use ANY KIND of social media. You are at their mercy. It is like giving away your secrets to others to hold for you. The result?

    You are as naked as a jaybird.

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  2. so why did our whatsapp in saint lucia tell us about this update

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  3. 05/14/2019
    I Proclaim on the roof top that the “King is coming”! I announce to the ends of the earth, that the “King is coming”. And that the days of Noah are here. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord and make straight his paths.” Tell all the world that I am coming back soon. “I am coming for those who have laid their burdens down”. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
    The father says: What is written on your scroll is your end time assignment. I am reveling this to know to all who are completely walking with me, fully surrendered, obedient and faithful. I want your extreme focus now, more than ever before. Do not fall prey in distractions as the hour in which all you have been training for is here, it is now, it begins. Are you ready? It is like a chest game when you hold back you most strategic and important moves to win the game. I have held back my chosen ones until the final hour, those who have fully surrendered vessels, positioning them and waiting until the decisive moments to confirm the victory which I have already won. You are not walking this alone; I am always, always with you as well as my heavenly hosts who have been commanded regarding you and they do as I bid them to do. You will see them manifest depending on what I have assigned to you in your specific tasks.
    Pray and ask for their continued assistance. Things will come so quickly now and expect manifestations of my presence more and more often now. You will see and experience many things not previously known. You share responsibilities in me together as you are in covenant together in me. You also have your individual roles in me. You are surrounded by thousands of my angels who watch over you and guard you. Do not fear although ten thousand evil ones surround you, they shall not come near you and no harm shall come to my anointed. I am holding all of you in my hands, never fear. Trust and obey. For those who have ears to hear, for those who have readied their hearts, for those who have given me all and are in full surrender and obedience.
    I have drawn you into my courtyard, into my gate, where I have given you much insight and revelation as to these times that you live in. I am gathering together a people, my chosen first fruit remnant. You my chosen ones, will lead and guide, teach and minister. For as I, your great shepherd has taught you, my sheep, so I have taught you to follow my commands and follow my example and feed my sheep. In this way I have set you as shepherds for my flock, in that, you in me and I in you will draw many souls to me. As you know, there is order, perfect order in all I do. No one is above the other. All are equal in my sight. You have just been chosen for unique roles and positions in my body. This time of now, I am establishing these positions in strategic locations but know this, that you physical and geographical locations are subject to change.
    * These are the words of – Yahushua Mashiach.
    Do you know him, he knows you? Repent; be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, those of you who have not done so, for when the books are closed, no one will be able to enter in. God is sending warnings after warnings. We are in the End Times and he does not want ANY ONE to Perish. Time is running out, get saved now while you have time. He is the only way to salvation. Amend your ways and you will be allowed to remain in the land. Let those who have ears to hear and those who have eyes to see. Repent now! Remain strong, bold, courageous and steadfast in your faith.
    Credit to Brother Shomrim Ben Yahshua for my references, may God bless you my brother.

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