WhatsApp users targeted by spyware via in-app phone call

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On Friday last week, WhatsApp began rolling out a server-side fix and issued an all update to users of the messaging app on Monday.

WhatsApp has today disclosed that a vulnerability allowed hackers to install national grade spyware on phones.

A spokesperson said: "WhatsApp encourages people to upgrade to the latest version of our app, as well as keep their mobile operating system up to date, to protect against potential targeted exploits created to compromise information stored on mobile devices". This means a successful hacker can hijack the application to run malicious code that pores over encrypted chats, eavesdrops on calls, turns on the microphone and camera, accesses photos, contacts, and other information on a handheld, and potentially further compromises the device. Even if the call was not picked up, the surveillance software would be installed, and, the FT reported, the call would often disappear from the device's call log.

The code to exploit this was apparently developed by NSO Group, an Israel-based company that provides spyware to governments.

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A source has told the Financial Times that the company alerted the Department of Justice last week.

WhatsApp has advised its users to update the app. WhatsApp said in a statement to BBC that the attack targeted a "select number" of users, though an exact number is yet to be revealed.

The company identified and fixed the security flaw, but said that some users were targeted. The Israeli outfit, valued at $1bn, sells a highly capable spyware package, dubbed Pegasus, to governments around the world, ostensibly only allowing the suite to be used to snoop on and snare criminals and terrorists.

The spyware installed on the phones is called "Pegasus" which is a creation of Israeli cyber-intelligence company NSO. "NSO would not or could not use its technology in its own right to target any person or organisation".

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On Monday, the Facebook-owned messaging service disclosed the vulnerability, which affects both iOS and Android, after it was used to attack a number of victims, a WhatsApp spokesperson told PCMag. That said, the company is reportedly still investigating the number of phones that were targeted. "It's time to stop the use of NSO Group's tools to infiltrate, intimidate and silence civil society".

On Monday, Amnesty International - which said a year ago that one its staffers was also targeted with the spyware - said it would join in a legal bid to force Israel's Defense Ministry to suspend NSO's export license.

NSO sent a statement in response to questions about this attack.

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