Earlier this week, it was reported that Facebook-owned instant messaging app – WhatsApp – was used by hackers to install spyware in users’ devices. The hackers had used a security flaw in the application’s calling feature to install spyware into the handsets without the user noticing. The Israeli spyware named ‘Pegasus’ was then used to gather information, details of their chats, calls and even mails. But were the hackers able to hack into one among the most popular and supposedly safe apps?
The hackers used or exploited the buffer overflow vulnerability inside the application. WhatsApp had said that it fixed the vulnerability quickly as soon as the attack was noticed. A buffer overflow issue occurs when an application is overloaded with data in its buffer/ temporary storage space. When the app overloads, it starts storing the extra amount of data to the adjacent storage which in turn corrupts the earlier data held there by overwriting it.
This causes the application to crash, corrupt or open a way for the hackers/ external parties to enter into the app/ system. In WhatsApp’s case, the hackers exploited the same buffer overflow flaw within the app’s call feature to install spyware into the smartphones without the knowledge of the user. The security flaw was in the calling feature of WhatsApp and it got activated once the user initiated or received a call even if he didn’t answer the call or it didn’t connect.
WhatsApp’s calling feature uses the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) similar to many applications which uses the internet for calling instead of the standard telephone lines. According to Business Insider, when the user receives a telephone call on WhatsApp, the application sets up the VoIP transaction and the encryption which goes with it. The application then notifies the user about the incoming call and he then can choose to accept, decline or ignore the call.
The code used in WhatsApp’s spyware attack however, was developed by the Israel’s NGO Group who developed the Pegasus. The Pegasus is a spyware which can activate the smartphone’s camera along with its microphone. This spyware had already been used to manipulate devices of the activists. Other than that, the spyware has been used by the Israeli government to spy on, manipulate, extract information from people on a global scale.
Currently, WhatsApp hasn’t said anything about the number of users who have been affected by the issue. But the company is asking its users to update their application to the latest version.
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