Malware on WhatsApp was able to penetrate phones through missed calls alone via the app’s voice calling function. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WhatsApp discovers spyware that infected with a call alone

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.”

By The Associated Press

Just Posted

Walk raises awareness of victims of domestic violence

Central Alberta men and boys will walk a mile in high heels… Continue reading

Speeding a ‘constant concern’ for residents, says Red Deer RCMP

Red Deer RCMP ramps up its efforts to curb speeding in the… Continue reading

Central Alberta firefighters helping tackle High Level wildfires

Three Red Deer County firefighters and one from Innisfail arrived on scene Thursday morning

Dogs and drugs don’t mix: Red Deer business wants to leave downtown after 18 years

One business owner is done with downtown Red Deer after 18 years.… Continue reading

Cast your votes for the Best of Red Deer

Nominations for the Best of Red Deer Readers’ Choice Awards are officially… Continue reading

Seniors: The unheard melodies

The sights and sounds around us enable us to experience our world.… Continue reading

Police find urn with ashes along bank of Red Deer River

RCMP find urn with ashes along bank of Red Deer River Red… Continue reading

North Vancouver RCMP seek skier whose pole caused brain injury to B.C. teen

VANCOUVER — A North Vancouver family is joining with RCMP to urge… Continue reading

Canadian ‘Aladdin’ star eyes diverse career championing homegrown talent

TORONTO — Canadian “Aladdin” star Mena Massoud says his wild carpet ride… Continue reading

Supreme Court will tuck into UberEats case about drivers’ benefit rights

OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada will help decide whether a… Continue reading

Speech from the throne: Read the entire text outlining UCP priorities

The following is the speech from the throne, read Wednesday in the… Continue reading

Canada’s Rebecca Marino drops second-round French Open qualifying match

PARIS — Canada’s Rebecca Marino fell just short in a second-round qualifying… Continue reading

Most Read