The instant messaging application WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, said Monday it detected a vulnerability in its system that allowed hackers to install spyware on some smartphones and thus access the data contained in the devices.
The company confirmed in a statement the information that a few hours earlier had published exclusively the Financial Times and urged the 1.5 billion users worldwide to “update the application to its latest version” and keep its operating system up to date as a measure of “protection”.
WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook in 2014, said it still can’t say how many people were affected at this point, but said the victims were chosen “specifically,” so it wouldn’t be a large-scale attack in principle.
The spyware installed on the phones “resembles” the technology developed by the Israeli cybersecurity company NSO Group, which led WhatsApp to place it as the main suspect behind the espionage program.
The vulnerability in the system, for which the company released a patch on Monday, was detected only a few days ago and at the moment it is not known for how long the spying activities were taking place.
Hackers just need to make a call through WhatsApp to the phone whose data they wanted to access, and even if the recipient did not answer the call, a spyware program was installed on the devices.
In many cases, the call would later disappear from the device’s history, so if the caller had not seen it coming in real time, the affected user would not suspect anything. WhatsApp stated that as soon as it learned that the attacks had occurred, it warned human rights organizations (which were among the victims of espionage), cybersecurity companies and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The fact that some of the affected organizations are platforms for the defense of human rights reinforces the hypothesis of NSO Group’s involvement, since its software has been used in the past to carry out attacks against this type of entities.
NSO Group, which operates in an opaque manner and for many years did so in secret, designs spyware for its customers, including governments around the world, who use it to access mobile devices and obtain information. Spyware had the ability to infect phones with Apple’s (iOS) or Google’s (Android) operating system.