Facebook Patches WhatsApp Flaw Exploited to Spy on Users

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Facebook has patched a critical zero-day vulnerability in WhatsApp that can and has been exploited to remotely install spyware on phones by calling the targeted device.

The flaw, tracked as CVE-2019-3568, has been described by Facebook as a buffer overflow in the WhatsApp VOIP stack. The security hole allows an attacker to remotely execute arbitrary code by sending specially crafted SRTCP packets to the targeted phone number.

Facebook addressed the vulnerability on Monday with the release of WhatsApp for Android 2.19.134, WhatsApp Business for Android 2.19.44, WhatsApp for iOS 2.19.51, WhatsApp Business for iOS 2.19.51, WhatsApp for Windows Phone 2.18.348, and WhatsApp for Tizen 2.18.15. Prior versions are impacted. A server-side fix was implemented on Friday.

According to the Financial Times (subscription required), the vulnerability has been exploited to deliver spyware made by Israel-based NSO Group, a controversial company whose products have been used to spy on human rights groups, activists, lawyers and journalists. Its tools — the most well known are Pegasus (for iOS) and Chrysaor (for Android) — provide a wide range of spying capabilities, often by exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities.

FT reported that exploitation involves calling the targeted device via WhatsApp, but the victim does not need to answer for the vulnerability to be triggered, and the incoming calls are said to have disappeared from logs.

The publication said one of the victims was an unnamed attorney based in the United Kingdom, who was targeted on May 12. The lawyer is involved in a lawsuit filed against NSO by individuals targeted with the company’s spyware.

WhatsApp has not named the entity exploiting CVE-2019-3568, but described it as an “advanced cyber actor” that targeted “a select number of users.”

“The attack has all the hallmarks of a private company reportedly that works with governments to deliver spyware that takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems,” WhatsApp said.

NSO, which claims to provide its products only to government agencies, denied using its own software to target the UK lawyer or anyone else.

“NSO would not, or could not, use its technology in its own right to target any person or organization, including this individual,” it stated.

Related: Bug Allows Bypass of WhatsApp Face ID, Touch ID Protection

Related: Mexican Privacy Watchdog Criticizes Government Over Spyware

Related: Ex-NSO Employee Accused of Stealing Spyware Source Code

Related: Israeli Firm Rejects Alleged Connection to Khashoggi Killing

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.

Previous Columns by Eduard Kovacs:
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