WhatsApp urges users to upgrade app after report of spyware attack

The Whats App logo is displayed on the screen of a computer in Paris France

Even though Facebook does not directly name the NSO Group, it appears to be the most likely culprit.

If you use an iPhone handset, you can update the app simply through the App Store - click on "Updates" at the bottom of the screen and find WhatsApp's update button.

WhatsApp is used by an estimated 1.5 billion people. It can also record location data and activate a phone's microphone and camera. Encryption is worthless once a phone's operating system has been violated.

The attack targeted iPhones, as well as phones with Google's Android system, Microsoft Windows Phones and Samsung's Tizen system.

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The New York Times reported at the time that at least three Mexican federal agencies had purchased some $80 million of spyware from NSO Group since 2011. Instead, it was WhatsApp's security team that found the flaw. The attack would not affect Facebook's ability to do that.

A London-based lawyer, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity, said he'd received several suspicious video WhatsApp calls beginning in March that would ring for a few seconds before cutting out.

The latest exploit - which impacts Android devices and Apple's iPhones, among others - was discovered earlier this month and WhatsApp scrambled to fix it, rolling out an update in less than 10 days.

John Scott-Railton, a researcher with the internet watchdog Citizen Lab, called the latest hack "a very scary vulnerability".

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"There's nothing a user could have done here, short of not having the app", he told the Associated Press. The vast majority of hacks involve some sort of user interaction, such as clicking on an infected link.

The apparent attempt to breach the lawyer's phone was not successful, Scott-Railton said, as WhatsApp had patched the vulnerability by Sunday. At first, engineers were surprised by the information that many users got calls from an unfamiliar number.

The group claims that NSO software "threatens the rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression, in breach of Israel's obligations under global human rights law".

The company has also alerted USA law enforcement to the exploit, and published a "CVE notice", an advisory to other cybersecurity experts alerting them to "common vulnerabilities and exposures". "That's really where our highest concern is", a WhatsApp spokesman said.

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An advisory from Facebook describes the vulnerability (CVE-2019-3568): "A buffer overflow vulnerability in WhatsApp VOIP stack allowed remote code execution via specially crafted series of SRTCP packets sent to a target phone number".

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