Spyware crafted by a sophisticated group of hackers-for-hire has taken advantage of a flaw in the popular WhatsApp communications program to remotely hijack dozens of phones without any user interaction.
WhatsApp all but confirmed the identification, according to AP, 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 Financial Times identified the hacking group as Israel's NSO Group, which has been widely condemned for selling surveillance tools to repressive governments.
A new version of WhatsApp containing a fix has been released and the company said that the spyware did not directly affect the end-to-end encryption that makes WhatsApp chats and calls private. It merely used a bug in the WhatsApp software as an infection vehicle.
The malware allows spies to effectively take control of a phone, remotely and surreptitiously controlling its cameras and microphones and vacuuming up personal and location data. Encryption is worthless once a phone's operating system has been violated.
AP reported that the malware was able to penetrate phones through missed calls alone using the app's voice calling function, according to a WhatsApp spokesman, who was not authorized to be quoted by name. He 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, the spokesman said.
The development comes as Facebook looks to triple down on its messaging services by merging WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct and bringing WhatsApp-level encryption to the others. The attack would not affect Facebook's ability to do that.
The WhatsApp spokesman said its flaw was discovered while "our team was putting some additional security enhancements to our voice calls." He said 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.
Although WhatsApp urged all users to update the program on their phones, only a minuscule percentage run the risk of being targeted by such malware.
While the timing of the hack is unfortunate for Facebook as it trots out a "privacy-focused" vision centered on messaging, people quickly forget about these problems, said Nate Elliott, who runs the research firm Nineteen Insights.
Just a day after WhatsApp disclosed the flaw, Intel revealed a hardware vulnerability that could affect millions of machines around the world. The bug is embedded in the architecture of computer hardware and can't be fully fixed. But Intel said Tuesday there's no evidence of anyone exploiting it outside of a research laboratory, as it's difficult to do.