Hijacked WhatsApp Accounts Lead to Nation-Wide Security Alert in Israel

By Nitish Singh / October 5, 2018

Israeli web developer Ran Bar-Zik from Oath documented a hacking method for WhatsApp in 2017. The exploit is still possible and has led to widespread reports of WhatsApp accounts being hijacked in Israel. The government of the country has issued a nation-wide security alert to warn users about the issue.

The WhatsApp exploit takes advantage of the app’s registration method on a new device. Users are requested to enter their phone numbers, and the messaging platform sends a one-time password to the device via SMS. In this case, an attacker would need physical access to the original owner’s device to get access to the authentication code.

However, it can be bypassed by intentionally failing the SMS verification a few times, which causes WhatsApp to send a code using voicemail instead. Attackers can simply use remote voice mail and put in the default password given by telecom operators to get access to the one-time passwords delivered via voice mail.

Phone users in Israel who did not change their default voicemail password are at high-risk, and the government has asked users to change their passwords. The default passwords for voicemail is either 0000 or 1234 for Israeli phone operators. Attackers smartly use the exploit by targeting users at night when they are less likely to be awake and see the verification messages or voice calls on their devices.

The method does not require any professional hacking skills or equipment and can be done by anyone. However, an advanced method known as Ransombile is available that can exploit other services too. There has been a massive spike in such activity according to numerous reports. Israeli authorities have requested WhatsApp users in the country to change their passwords into something more secure. The issue could have been mitigated easily if the Israeli phone operators did not use the same default password for all users.

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