Tuesday 20 August 2019

Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problems


Hack attack: an Israeli spy software firm recently targeted the WhatsApp messaging service
Hack attack: an Israeli spy software firm recently targeted the WhatsApp messaging service
Apple iPod Touch
Dell XPS 13
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Question: My family and I have become more and more reliant on WhatsApp. We use it more than normal text messaging. But is it secure? Recent news reports have us a bit worried about using it. Should we give it up or is there any way to take security precautions when using it?


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WhatsApp is one of the few mass-market messaging services that uses encryption, making it nominally more secure than other services (such as Facebook's 'Messenger' messaging service). What 'encryption' means is that WhatsApp itself can't get into your messages, even if it wants to.

But that hasn't stopped security concerns. A few weeks ago, the WhatsApp engineers discovered that 'spyware' could get into a user's phone simply by another person making a WhatsApp voice call to your accounted device. Chillingly, the call did not have to be answered for the spyware 'payload' to work.

But before you panic, this was a very specific, targeted attack developed by an Israeli spy software firm that works with governments. So while it's concerning that WhatsApp had some sort of backdoor that could be exploited, there's no suggestion that this was used en masse by criminals or hackers. Instead, it seems to have been a very targeted thing that was somehow discovered, like a spy being discovered in a foreign government.

So the bottom line is that it's very unlikely that any of your messages or photos have been read or exploited by this particular event.

That said, you should still update your WhatsApp right away. The company (it's actually part of Facebook, as you probably already know) immediately uploaded a patched version to the app stores for iPhone and Android. So it's good digital hygiene to do this.

If you're still really freaked out by this for some reason, there are alternatives you can consider that position themselves even more as security messaging apps.

Signal is probably the main alternative here. Telegram is another to consider, although security professionals rate Signal a bit higher.

As for what happens to your WhatsApp conversations and content if you delete your account, Facebook and WhatsApp are a little cagey on it. But here's the basic outline based on what they have said (buried layers down in its website). If you delete your account, conversations you have had with others will remain on those other phones.

In other words, those text messages or chats or photos won't be retrospectively deleted from other people's phones just because you decided to deactivate your account.

So it's a little bit like a text messaging system.

WhatsApp is less forthcoming about other bits of data, such as whether your account photo still shows up in those text chats on other people's phones.

Incidentally, it's worth pointing out that deleting the app is not the same as deleting your account. To delete the app, you're simply removing it from your phone, but your account - and all the data, messages and content associated with it - remains.

Deleting your account, however, will wipe almost all of your data from the company's servers. (So even if you keep a version of the app on your phone, it won't show any content when you open it up or try to 'log in'.)

However, it is also worth pointing out that deleting WhatsApp altogether is not without its drawbacks. Like it or not, WhatsApp is now the most used 'social' communication or messaging service in Ireland. It's used by an estimated two out of every three Irish adults, which makes it even more used than Facebook.

This means that it's now basically a utility upon which whole communities sometimes depend, at least in part.

The reason is its group chat function. How many residents' associations or sports clubs or parents' groups now don't use a WhatsApp group? WhatsApp is now unquestionably the social noticeboard and feedback system that is leaned on by vast swathes of Irish communities. As such, if you ditch it for an alternative, you may be unplugging yourself from being in contact with those communities, at least superficially.

To be sure, this is not a definitive reason to refrain from leaving WhatsApp. There is no question that many probably feel hounded and overwhelmed by constant pinging of WhatsApp messages. I know I certainly do: I usually 'mute' everything on it, instead checking in manually once every day or two.

But know that you're checking out of being available to a lot of people and organisations - possibly including relatives or extended family - if you delete the app.

Finally, it's worth asking the question: should we just now assume that other, similar hacking bugs are going to be a risk we all have to take when using online messaging systems, whether they're encrypted or not?

To some degree, yes. But bear in mind that the majority of hacking or malicious bugs are done to try and steal money or somehow con you with a financial goal in mind. This wasn't. It was a piece of technology developed for security agencies that seems to have been targeted more widely.

Email your questions to ­caomahony@independent.ie


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