A serious flaw in instant messaging service WhatsApp lets attackers remotely install surveillance software and spy on selected, high-profile targets, the company’s security team confirmed today.
The attack was discovered earlier this month, the BBC reported. WhatsApp says Israeli’s NSO Group is behind the attack, which involves simply placing a VoIP (Voice over IP) call through WhatsApp – a call that the victim doesn’t even have to pick up. The Financial Times reported that attackers could even make the call disappear from the call log.
WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, shared the information with human rights groups, some security vendors and the US Department of Justice soon after discovering the attack, reports say.
“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,” WhatsApp said in a press briefing.
A security advisory published by Facebook yesterday describes 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.”
All WhatsApp versions are vulnerable, regardless of the platform/OS. The service has 1.5 billion users worldwide.
NSO Group licenses its surveillance software to government agencies “for the sole purpose of fighting crime and terror,” the group said in a statement.
“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,” it said.
“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,” the group added.
Human rights group Amnesty International has prepared a petition asking Israel’s Ministry of Defense to revoke NSO’s license to sell its surveillance software.
NSO Group has been in the news before for its powerful surveillance tool capable of collecting data from a target device, including through a device’s camera and mic.
In 2016 it was revealed that NSO’s flagship software known as Pegasus was being used to target human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor in the United Arab Emirates. His device, an iPhone 6, had been targeted by means of a clickable link via SMS.