WhatsApp has rushed to roll out a security fix after concerns were raised hackers could inject surveillance software on to phones via the call function. The company says users should upgrade to the latest version of the app.
The vulnerability allowed attackers to install malicious code on iPhones and Android phones by ringing up a target device. The code could be transmitted even if users did not answer their phones and a log of the call often disappeared, the Financial Times reported.
The Facebook-owned company says the attack bore a resemblance to spyware developed for intelligence agencies. There are concerns that the software was used in attempts to access the phones of human rights campaigners, including a UK-based lawyer.
“We believe a select number of users were targeted through this vulnerability by an advanced cyber actor,”WhatsApp told the FT. “This attack has all the hallmarks of a private company known to work with governments to deliver spyware that reportedly takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems.”
The firm says it alerted officials at the US Department of Justice after discovering the vulnerability in early May. WhatsApp claims to have 1.5 billion users around the world and it released a software update on Monday.
According to the Financial Times, the spyware was developed by NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity and intelligence company.
“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 Group told the paper. “NSO would not, or could not, use its technology in its own right to target any person or organisation, including this individual [the UK lawyer].”
The vulnerability and suspected attacks have been investigated by Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto.
“We believe an attacker tried and was blocked byWhatsApp to exploit it as recently as yesterday to target a human rights lawyer,” the lab says.
On Monday, Amnesty International says it was backing legal action against the Israeli Ministry of Defence demanding that it revokes NSO Group’s export licence.
“NSO Group sells its products to governments who are known for outrageous human rights abuses, giving them the tools to track activists and critics,” says Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech.
This news was first appeared in New Scientist.