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WhatsApp users face attack

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Check Point security recently discovered a vulnerability in the WhatsApp Web application that allows hackers to take control of a users computer by sending them a file that looks like a vCard.

Check Point security researchers have recently discovered various vulnerabilities in the WhatsApp Web application. Hackers would exploit a user’s computer by sending them a vCard, but the vCard is actually an executable file and opens up a PC to malware and phishing attacks.

WhatsApp Web – a web-based extension of the WhatsApp application on a phone mirrors all messages sent and received, and fully synchronizes your phone and your desktop computer so that users can see all messages on both devices.

WhatsApp Web is available for most WhatsApp supported platforms, including Android, iPhone (iOS), Windows Phone 8.x, BlackBerry, BB10 and Nokia smartphones. In September 2015, WhatsApp announced they had reached 900 million active users a month. At least 200M are estimated to use the WhatsApp Web interface, considering publicly available web traffic statistics.

Executive Summary

Check Point security researcher Kasif Dekel recently discovered significant vulnerabilities which exploit the WhatsApp Web logic and allow attackers to trick victims into executing arbitrary code on their machines in a new and sophisticated way. All an attacker needed to do to exploit the vulnerability was to send a user a seemingly innocent vCard containing malicious code. Once opened, the alleged contact is revealed to be an executable file, further compromising computers by distributing bots, ransomware, RATs, and other malwares.

To target an individual, all an attacker needs is the phone number associated with the account.

WhatsApp verified and acknowledged the security issue and have deployed the fix in web clients world-wide. To make sure you are protected, update your WhatsApp Web right now.

Check Point shared its discovery to WhatsApp on August 21, 2015. On August 27, WhatsApp rolled out the initial fix (in all versions greater than 0.1.4481) and blocked that particular feature.

Technical Details

WhatsApp Web allows users to view any type of media or attachment that can be sent or viewed by the mobile platform/application. This includes images, videos, audio files, locations and contact cards.

The vulnerability lies in improper filtering of contact cards, sent utilising the popular ‘vCard’ format.

This is a screenshot for a possible contact vCard sent by a malicious user:

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As you can see, this message (contact card) appears legitimate, like any other contact card; most users would click it immediately without giving it a second thought.

The implication of this innocent action is downloading a file which can run arbitrary code on the victim’s machine:

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An Initial Hole

During Kasif’s research, he found that by manually intercepting and crafting XMPP requests to the WhatsApp servers, it was possible to control the file extension of the contact card file.

He first changed the file extension to .BAT, which indicates a Windows batch (executable script) file:

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This means, once the victim clicks the downloaded file (which he assumes is a contact card), the code inside the batch file runs on his computer.

Let’s see what’s inside the downloaded file (i.e. the batch file):

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This is a standard vCard format. To run malicious code, Kasif found out an attacker could simply inject a command to the name attribute of the vCard file, separated by the ‘&’ character. When executed, Windows will attempt to run all lines in the files, including our controlled injection line.

Further research showed that no XMPP interception of crafting is needed for this attack, since any user can create such a contact with an injected payload on their phones, no hacking tools necessary:

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Once such a contact is created, all an attacker has to do is share it via the normal WhatsApp client.

But can we take it to the next level? Could we possibly discover a way to share malicious PE (.exe) files through WhatsApp’s default sharing features (no external links)?

To answer that, we have to examine WhatsApp’s communication protocols; WhatsApp uses a customised version of the open standard Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP).

This is how vCard messages appear over-the-wire (with some reconstruction) when sent using WhatsApp’s protocol:

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NUMBER/GROUPID: the victim’s number or group ID

·         ID: the message ID

·         TIMESTAMP:  the timestamp of the sender device

·         FILENAME: the VCARD file name, <something>.exe

·         FILEDATA: the raw data of the file

We were surprised to find that WhatsApp fails to perform any validation on the vCard format or the contents of the file, and indeed when we crafted an exe file into this request, the WhatsApp web client happily let us download the PE file in all its glory:

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But wait, there’s more! Clever attackers can exploit this in more devious scenarios, using the displayed icon to enrich the scam:

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This simple trick opened up a vast world of opportunity for cybercriminals and scammers, in effect allowing easy “WhatsApp Phishing”. Massive exploitation of this vulnerability could have affected millions of users, failing to realise the malicious nature of the attachment.

Disclosure Timeline

·         August 21, 2015 – Vulnerability disclosed to the WhatsApp security team.

·         August 23, 2015 – First response received.

·         August 27, 2015 – WhatsApp rolls out fixed web clients (v0.1.4481)

·         September 8, 2015 – Public disclosure

Conclusions

“Thankfully, WhatsApp responded quickly and responsibly to deploy an initial mitigation against exploitation of this issue in all web clients, pending an update of the WhatsApp client” said Oded Vanunu, Security Research Group Manager at Check Point. We applaud WhatsApp for such proper responses, and wish more vendors would handle security issues in this professional manner. Software vendors and service providers should be secured and act in accordance with security best practices.

Check Point continues to be on the lookout for vulnerabilities in common software and Internet platforms, disclosing issues as they are discovered, protecting consumers and customers against tomorrow’s threats.”

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Tech promotes connections across groups in emerging markets

Digital technology users say they more regularly interact with people from diverse backgrounds

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Smartphone users – especially those who use social media – say they are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds. They are also more connected with friends they don’t see in person, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds.

South Africa, included in the study, has among the most consistent levels of connection across age groups and education levels and in terms of cross-cultural connections. This suggests both that smartphones have had a greater democratisation impact in South Africa, but also that the country is more geared to diversity than most others. Of 11 countries surveyed, it has the second-lowest spread between those using smartphones and those not using them in terms of exposure to other religious groups.

Across every country surveyed, those who use smartphones are more likely than those who use less sophisticated phones or no phones at all to regularly interact with people from different religious groups. In most countries, people with smartphones also tend to be more likely to interact regularly with people from different political parties, income levels and racial or ethnic backgrounds. 

The Center’s new report is the third in a series exploring digital connectivity among populations in emerging economies based on nationally representative surveys of adults in Colombia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam. Earlier reports examined attitudes toward misinformation and mobile technology’s social impact

The survey finds that smartphone and social media use are intertwined: A median of 91% of smartphone users in these countries also use social media or messaging apps, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone. And, as with smartphone users, social media and messaging app users stand apart from non-users in how often they interact with people who are different from them. For example, 52% of Mexican social media users say they regularly interact with people of a different income level, compared with 28% of non-users. 

These results do not show with certainty that smartphones or social media are the cause of people feeling like they have more diverse networks. For example, those who have resources to buy and maintain a smartphone are likely to differ in many key ways from those who don’t, and it could be that some combination of those differences drives this phenomenon. Still, statistical modelling indicates that smartphone and social media use are independent predictors of greater social network diversity when other factors such as age, education and sex are held constant. 

Other key findings in the report include: 

  • Mobile phones and social media are broadening people’s social networks. More than half in most countries say they see in person only about half or fewer of the people they call or text. Mobile phones are also allowing many to stay in touch with people who live far away: A median of 93% of mobile phone users across the 11 countries surveyed say their phones have mostly helped them keep in touch with those who are far-flung. When it comes to social media, large shares report relationships with “friends” online who are distinct from those they see in person. A median of 46% of Facebook users across the 11 countries report seeing few or none of their Facebook friends in person regularly, compared with a median of 31% of Facebook users who often see most or all of their Facebook friends in person. 
  • Social activities and information seeking on subjects like health and education top the list of mobile activities. The survey asked mobile phone users about 10 different activities they might do on their mobile phones – activities that are social, information-seeking or commercial in nature. Among the most commonly reported activities are casual, social activities. For example, a median of 82% of mobile phone users in the 11 countries surveyed say they used their phone over the past year to send text messages and a median of 69% of users say they took pictures or videos. Many mobile phone users are also using their phones to find new information. For example, a median of 61% of mobile phone users say they used their phones over the past year to look up information about health and medicine for themselves or their families. This is more than the proportion that reports using their phones to get news and information about politics (median of 47%) or to look up information about government services (37%). Additionally, around half or more of mobile phone users in nearly all countries report having used their phones over the past 12 months to learn something important for work or school. 
  • Digital divides emerge in the new mobile-social environment. People with smartphones and social media – as well as younger people, those with higher levels of education, and men – are in some ways reaping more benefits than others, potentially contributing to digital divides. 
    • People with smartphones are much more likely to engage in activities on their phones than people with less sophisticated devices – even if the activity itself is quite simple. For example, people with smartphones are more likely than those with feature or basic phones to send text messages in each of the 11 countries surveyed, even though the activity is technically feasible from all mobile phones. Those who have smartphones are also much more likely to look up information for their households, including about health and government services. 
    •  There are also major differences in mobile usage by age and education level in how their devices are – or are not – broadening their horizons. Younger people are more likely to use their phones for nearly all activities asked about, whether those activities are social, information-seeking or commercial. Phone users with higher levels of education are also more likely to do most activities on their phones and to interact with those who are different from them regularly than those with lower levels of education. 
    •  Gender, too, plays a role in what people do with their devices and how they are exposed to different people and information. Men are more likely than women to say they encounter people who are different from them, whether in terms of race, politics, religion or income. And men tend to be more likely to look up information about government services and to obtain political news and information. 

These findings are drawn from a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report. 

Read the full report at https://www.pewinternet.org/2019/08/22/in-emerging-economies-smartphone-and-social-media-users-have-broader-social-networks.

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Nokia to be first with Android 10

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Nokia is likely to be the first smartphone brand to roll out Android 10, after its manufacturer, HMD Global, announced that the Android 10 software upgrade would start in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Previously named Android Q, it was given the number after Google announced it was ditching sweet and dessert names due to confusion in different languages. Android 10 is due for release at the end of the year.

Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer of HMD Global said: “With a proven track record in delivering software updates fast, Nokia smartphones were the first whole portfolio to benefit from a 2-letter upgrade from Android Nougat to Android Oreo and then Android Pie. We were the fastest manufacturer to upgrade from Android Oreo to Android Pie across the range. 

“With today’s roll out plan we look set to do it even faster for Android Pie to Android 10 upgrades. We are the only manufacturer 100% committed to having the latest Android across the entire portfolio.”

HMD Global has given a guarantee that Nokia smartphone owners benefit from two years of OS upgrades and 3 years of security updates.

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