FILE - This Friday, March 10, 2017, file photo shows the WhatsApp communications app on a smartphone, in New York. WhatsApp says a vulnerability in the popular communications app let mobile phones be infected with sophisticated spyware with a missed in-app call alone. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

WhatsApp discovers spyware that infected with a call alone

The malware was able to penetrate phones through missed calls alone via the app’s voice calling function

Spyware crafted by a sophisticated group of hackers-for-hire took advantage of a flaw in the popular WhatsApp communications program to remotely hijack dozens of phones, the company said late Monday.

The Financial Times identified the actor as Israel’s NSO Group, and WhatsApp all but confirmed the identification, describing hackers as “a private company that has been known to work with governments to deliver spyware.” A spokesman for the Facebook subsidiary later said: “We’re certainly not refuting any of the coverage you’ve seen.”

The malware was able to penetrate phones through missed calls alone via the app’s voice calling function, the spokesman said. An unknown number of people — an amount in the dozens at least would not be inaccurate — were infected with the malware, which the company discovered in early May, said the spokesman, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.

John Scott-Railton, a researcher with the internet watchdog Citizen Lab, called the hack “a very scary vulnerability.”

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

The spokesman said the flaw was discovered while “our team was putting some additional security enhancements to our voice calls” and that engineers found that people targeted for infection “might get one or two calls from a number that is not familiar to them. In the process of calling, this code gets shipped.”

WhatsApp, which has more than 1.5 billion users, immediately contacted Citizen Lab and human rights groups, quickly fixed the issue and pushed out a patch. He said WhatsApp also provided information to U.S. law enforcement officials to assist in their investigations.

“We are deeply concerned about the abuse of such capabilities,” WhatsApp said in a statement.

NSO said in a statement that its technology is used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies to fight “crime and terror.”

“We investigate any credible allegations of misuse and if necessary, we take action, including shutting down the system,” the statement said. A spokesman for Stephen Peel, whose private equity firm Novalpina recently announced the purchase of part of NSO, did not return an email seeking comment.

The revelation adds to the questions over the reach of the Israeli company’s powerful spyware, which takes advantage of digital flaws to hijack smartphones, control their cameras and effectively turn them into pocket-sized surveillance devices.

NSO’s spyware has repeatedly been found deployed to hack journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and dissidents. Most notably, the spyware was implicated in the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year and whose body has never been found.

Several alleged targets of the spyware, including a close friend of Khashoggi and several Mexican civil society figures, are currently suing NSO in an Israeli court over the hacking.

Monday, Amnesty International — which said last year that one its staffers was also targeted with the spyware — said it would join in a legal bid to force Israel’s Ministry of Defence to suspend NSO’s export license.

That makes the discovery of the vulnerability particularly disturbing because one of the targets was a U.K.-based human rights lawyer, the attorney told the AP.

The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for professional reasons, said he received several suspicious missed calls over the past few months, the most recent one on Sunday, only hours before WhatsApp issued the update to users fixing the flaw.

In its statement, NSO said it “would not or could not” use its own technology to target “any person or organization, including this individual.”

___

Online:

Frank Bajak: http://twitter.com/fbajak ,

Raphael Satter: http://twitter.com/razhael

Frank Bajak And Raphael Satter, The Associated Press

Just Posted

Nurse comes home to ‘dream job’ at Saanich Peninsula Hospital

Jane Fox is the first Aboriginal liaison nurse at the Saanich Peninsula Hospital

Key tag program leads to new respirator at Jubilee Hospital

TB Vets donate 28 life-saving respirators around B.C.

PHOTOS: Thousands show for 40th GoodLife Marathon in downtown Victoria

New records, first-time runners, and stories of resilience

Mother of alleged hit-and-run victim hopes municipalities will work together to improve crosswalk

Young woman injured, dog killed when struck by driver on marked crosswalk at Foul Bay Road

Here comes the rain: Victoria can expect post Thanksgiving showers all week

Mild, rainy weather expected from Tuesday to Saturday

VIDEO: Greater Victoria, here’s the news you missed this weekend

Dog killed in alleged hit and run, Goodlife Marathon takes over city and more

Canadian Snowbirds plane crashes before air show in Atlanta

Pilot lands safely after ejecting from jet

Share crash data, private insurers tell David Eby, ICBC

B.C. monopoly makes drivers retrieve their own records

B.C. VIEWS: Wolf kill, not backcountry bans, saving caribou

B.C.’s largest herds turn the corner from extinction

Pearson nets shootout winner as Canucks clip Flyers 3-2

Vancouver picks up second straight home win

Map on Elections Canada website sends Nanaimo-Ladysmith voters to landfill

Address for polling station correct, but Google Map address differs

BC Children’s Hospital launches 2 new virtual care sites bringing total to 19 across province

Provincial initiative allows pediatric patients to see health specialists through video

‘Wham-bam out the door’: Surrey man’s front yard left ruined by scamming landscaper

Resident warns neighbours to be careful of door-to-door salesmen

Most Read