WhatsApp discovers spyware that infects mobile phones with a call alone

NSO Group’s spyware has repeatedly been found deployed to hack journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and dissidents. (AP)
Updated 14 May 2019
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WhatsApp discovers spyware that infects mobile phones with a call alone

  • The malware was able to penetrate phones through missed calls alone via the app’s voice calling function
  • NSO’s spyware has repeatedly been found deployed to hack journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and dissidents

Spyware crafted by an “advanced cyber actor” infected multiple targeted mobile phones through the popular WhatsApp communications program without any user intervention through in-app voice calls, the company said.
The Financial Times identified the actor as Israel’s NSO Group, and a WhatsApp spokesman 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 for the Facebook subsidiary said late Monday. An unknown number of people — an amount in the dozens at least would not be inaccurate — were infected with the malware, which the company said it 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 WhatsApp spokesman said the attack had “all the hallmarks of a private company that has been known to work with governments to deliver spyware that has the ability to take over mobile phone operating systems.”
The spokesman said 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 US law enforcement officials to assist in their investigation.
He 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.”
“We are deeply concerned about the abuse of such capabilities,” WhatsApp said in a statement.
Spokespeople for NSO Group did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The revelation adds to the questions over the reach of the Israeli company’s powerful spyware, which can 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 Defense to suspend NSO’s export license.
That makes the discovery of the vulnerability particularly disturbing because one of the targets was a UK-based human rights lawyer, the attorney told the AP.
The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for professional reasons, said he received about 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.


Arab News women driving cover wins further recognition in DNA Paris Design Awards

Updated 22 May 2019
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Arab News women driving cover wins further recognition in DNA Paris Design Awards

  • Arab News scooped the awards for its front page by “New Yorker” illustrator Malika Favre, which was published to mark the move to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive
  • It has won numerous awards since its publication and been one of the most retweeted artworks celebrating women driving in the Kingdom

LONDON: Arab News has continued its success on the international awards stage by winning two honorable mentions at the DNA Paris Design Awards.

The newspaper scooped the awards for its front page by “New Yorker” illustrator Malika Favre, which was published to mark the move to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive.

The honorable mentions were for the categories “Graphic design - Editorial” and “Graphic design - Key art (Posters, covers, illustration).”

"For Arab News to be recognised again on a global scale with this award is a great honor," Simon Khalil, global creative director at Arab News, said. “Our women drivers cover has been recognised with eight design awards so far and this highlights just how important this moment in history was for women across the Kingdom.

 “Malika Favre was the obvious choice for our cover, and her illustration brilliantly captures the significance of this moment on the day Saudi Arabia changed forever."

The illustration was commissioned by Arab News for the cover of a special souvenir edition on June 24 of last year. It has become one of the most retweeted artworks celebrating women driving in the Kingdom.

The cover has won numerous awards since it was published. In March, it was recognized by SND awards, one of the most prestigious in the industry.

In February, the cover image was recognized in the international design awards run by “HOW” magazine.

The DNA Paris Design Awards honors international architects and designers “who improve our daily lives through practical, beautiful and innovative design,” according to its website.