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Irish users urged to download latest version of WhatsApp after phones infected with spyware through missed calls

The DPC said that it had been informed by WhatsApp about a “serious vulnerability” on its platform.

Image: Shutterstock/Alex Ruhl

Updated May 14th 2019, 1:00 PM

THE DATA PROTECTION Commission has urged Irish users of the instant messaging app WhatsApp to ensure they have the latest update downloaded, after it was revealed that multiple phones had been infected with spyware.

The DPC said that it had been informed by WhatsApp – which has its European headquarters located in Ireland – about a “serious security vulnerability” on its platform. 

The vulnerability may have allowed a malicious actor to install unauthorised spyware, which would allow it to access personal data on phones which have the app installed. 

Earlier, WhatsApp confirmed that multiple phones had been infected with the spyware by an “advanced cyber actor” without any user intervention through in-app voice calls.

The Financial Times identified the actor as Israel’s NSO Group, and a WhatsApp spokesperson 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, according to the spokesperson. 

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 this month.

The DPC said that that it is unknown at this stage whether EU users have been affected. 

However, it said that while the possibility remains that they were affected, all users of the app are urged to ensure that the latest version is installed on their device, available via the Apple Store or Google Play Store.

“The DPC is actively engaging with WhatsApp Ireland to determine if and to what extent any WhatsApp EU user data has been affected,” the DPC said. 

At this point, WhatsApp has not notified the DPC of the matter under Article 33 (notification of a personal data breach to a data protection supervisory authority) of the GDPR as the company is still investigating as to whether any WhatsApp EU user data was affected. 

“Vulnerability” 

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.

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The WhatsApp spokesperson 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”.

They 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.

They said WhatsApp also provided information to US law enforcement officials to assist in their investigation, and have now also informed Irish authorities. 

The spokesperson 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.

With reporting from Associated Press  

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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