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.


Twitter blocks accounts of Iranian state media outlets

Updated 21 July 2019
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Twitter blocks accounts of Iranian state media outlets

  • Twitter said the accounts harassed people linked to the Baha’i faith
  • The Baha’i faith is a religious minority that has long faced persecution in Iran

WASHINGTON: A day after Twitter suspended the accounts of several Iranian state media outlets, the social networking service said Saturday it acted after harassment of people linked to the Baha’i faith.
Amid soaring tensions in the region, heightened by Iran’s seizure on Friday of a British-flagged tanker, some of the affected media outlets had speculated that the suspensions were related to their coverage of the seizure.
But Twitter cited what it said was the coordinated and targeted harassment of people linked to the Baha’i faith, a religious minority that has long faced persecution in Iran.
It did not name the suspended accounts, and said it was continuing to investigate the matter.
“Account suspended. Twitter suspends accounts which violate the Twitter Rules,” read English-language messages on each of the Iranian media outlets’ accounts.
Mehr news agency, which is close to moderate conservatives in Iran, said its Farsi-language account appeared to have been blocked late Friday following its reports on the seizure of the tanker Stena Impero in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it seized the Swedish-owned tanker for breaking “international maritime rules” in the strait, a chokepoint for around a third of the world’s sea-borne oil.
Mehr’s Farsi-language Twitter page was inaccessible on Saturday, along with those of the official IRNA news agency and the agency of the Young Journalists’ Club.
“Since last night and after seizure of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz the account of the Young Journalists’ Club and some other users have been suspended,” the YJC said on its website.
Mehr noted that its Mehr Diplomacy account, which publishes analysis and interviews on foreign policy, was also offline.
Another account taken down belonged to Ali Akbar Raefipoor, a hard-line public speaker.
None of the owners of the suspended accounts said they had been given any reason for the move by Twitter.
The micro-blogging platform is banned in Iran, but many officials still have accounts and people access them by using a virtual private network, or VPN, to bypass censorship.