The 14th of May was another troublesome day for Facebook and its companies. It was revealed (and also announced by Facebook themselves) that a security flaw in the app’s software allowed attackers to bypass WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption and secretly install spyware onto users’ devices. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, said the attack targeted a “select number” of users and was orchestrated by “an advanced cyber-actor”. They add: “WhatsApp encourages people to upgrade to the latest version of our app, as well as keep their mobile operating system up to date, to protect against potential targeted exploits designed to compromise information stored on mobile devices, the company said in a statement.

What to do?

Facebook did advise all its users to simply uninstall the app and re-install it or update to the latest version, claiming most users had already done so. The breach arose from the fact that the software suffers from a “buffer overflow weakness”  as Facebook also announced, which in turn gives hackers the opportunity to effectively take full control of the application to run malicious code which gives them access to encrypted chats, photos, contacts and other data stored on a smartphone running the app.

The actual software install by the hackers is tremendously powerful allowing to even access a users’ camera and microphone (so effectively even allows them to eavesdrop on your daily conversations and activities) as well as take control of a users account and be able to respond to, delete or see active conversations. It also has the ability to hide logs hence hiding all the hackers activities and making it even harder to trace.

In essence, the hackers had to only  make a voice call, and they might gain access to the recipient’s phone content rather easily. The Financial Times reported a company spokesperson as suspecting, “This attack has all the hallmarks of a private company known to work with governments to deliver spyware that reportedly takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems. We have briefed a number of human rights organisations to share the information we can, and to work with them to notify civil society.”

The National Cyber Security Centre, the cyber arm of GCHQ, warned WhatsApp users about the vulnerability and urged them to update their apps. “It’s important to apply these updates quickly, to make it as hard as possible for attackers to get in,” the spy agency said.

The spyware was allegedly developed by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group, reports the Financial Times.

How do I update WhatsApp?

Android

  • Open the Google Play store
  • Tap the menu at the top left of the screen
  • Tap My Apps & Games
  • If WhatsApp has recently been updated, it will appear in the list of apps with a button that says Open
  • If WhatsApp has not been automatically updated, the button will say Update. Tap Update to install the new version
  • The latest version of WhatsApp on Android is 2.19.134

iOS

  • Open the App Store
  • At the bottom of the screen, tap Updates
  • If WhatsApp has recently been updated, it will appear in the list of apps with a button that says Open
  • If WhatsApp has not been automatically updated, the button will say Update. Tap Update to install the new version
  • The latest version of WhatsApp on iOS is 2.19.51

We would strongly advise you to uninstall the app completely from your phone and reinstall again so as to avoid any potential threats. It will automatically update your phone to the latest version and remove any spyware already installed. In addition, if you are worried about any of your conversations, they are usually backed up to your Google (if your phone is connected to it in other apps), your Cloud storage (if you have one) or you can also back it up yourself prior to remove the app. In addition, if you are also a user of Whatsapp desktop, you will need to reconnect the Desktop app with your phone.

We will keep you updated with any further news or announcements by Facebook or Whatsapp themselves via our blog and social media.

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