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.


Qatari network Al Jazeera slammed over ‘Holocaust denial’ film

Updated 19 May 2019
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Qatari network Al Jazeera slammed over ‘Holocaust denial’ film

  • Video on AJ+ Arabic channel claimed Israel was the genocide’s ‘greatest beneficiary’
  • Network suspends two journalists over ‘violation of editorial guidelines’

LONDON: Al Jazeera’s youth channel AJ+ Arabic has drawn widespread condemnation over a video that was branded “Holocaust denial” for claiming the Jews exaggerated the scale of the genocide to help establish Israel.
After widespread public anger, the Qatar-owned network was forced to delete the video, suspending two of its journalists over its broadcast.
The video in question, while not disputing the Holocaust took place, suggested the Jews had skewed facts about the genocide, and that Israel was the “biggest winner” from it.

“Denouncing the Holocaust is a moral obligation, but Israel is the biggest winner from the Holocaust,” the presenter said.
“And it uses the same Nazi justifications as a launching pad for the racial cleansing and annihilation of the Palestinians.”
Many took to Twitter in outrage about the video, with one commentator pointing out the difference between AJ+ in Arabic, and its English output.
Al Jazeera has long been accused of broadcasting extreme material in Arabic, but churning out seemingly more balanced material in English, aimed at a Western audience.

In a statement on Sunday, the network said it had suspended two journalists over “violation of its editorial guidelines.”
“The video content and accompanying posts were swiftly deleted by AJ+ senior management from all AJ+ pages and accounts on social media, as it contravened the Network’s editorial standards,” it said.
The network has also said a “mandatory bias training and awareness program” was required for its staff.