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

VIDEO: Young actors shine at theatre festival

Harbourfest Theatre Youth Program performed at this year’s Udderfest

Heart of Our City: Nobody is perfect, including parents

Sherry Beal has been giving and finding support at Prince Rupert’s North Coast Community Services

STORY AND VIDEO: Just kicking it: Taekwondo centre a mainstay in Prince Rupert

Master Paul Bozman has been at the helm for over three decades

PHOTO GALLERY: Rain doesn’t block the fun at Friendship House party

Annual Block Party offers activities, food and entertainment for all ages

New piece of art bedecks Prince Rupert Library

“The Quilt of Belonging to Prince Rupert” makes long awaited move to its new home

The grass is always greener — thanks to golf course grounds crew

Grant Slocombe helps maintain —and even finds some time to play — the Prince Rupert Golf Course

WEB POLL: Do you agree or disagree with the council of Port Edward’s decision to deny financial assistance for the feral cats?

A resident asked council for $2,400 to spay, neuter, and care for three feral cats in a colony of 20

The Northern View announces inaugural Tyee Fishing Derby in Prince Rupert

More than $7,000 up for grabs for biggest legal salmon and halibut

The Northern View 2019 Readers Choice

It’s that time of year again! Vote online or at the Prince Rupert office before noon on Aug. 30

VIDEO: Ride to Conquer Cancer rolls into Hope

Thousands of cyclist descend on small town for annual cancer fundraiser

B.C. VIEWS: Pipelines set to roll as federal politicians posture

Projects to drive B.C., Canadian economy in years ahead

B.C. Lions fall to 1-9 after 13-10 loss to Ticats

Lowly Leos have dropped six straight CFL contests

VIDEO: B.C. woman meets biological mother, 38 years later

Mother never gave up hope of finding daughter, despite all the obstacles

B.C. man who died after rescuing swimmer was known for helping others

Shaun Nugent described as a dad, a coach, a hero and ‘stand-up guy’ at celebration of life

Most Read