WhatsApp, Signal group chats not as secure as users might believe

12 January, 2018, 03:31 | Author: Juana Mckenzie
  • WhatsApp security loophole can add uninvited members to your groups

A group of security researchers from Ruhr University in Germany has revealed a security loophole in the end-to-end encrypted messaging app WhatsApp.

The vulnerabilities found in Threema and Signal are relatively harmless compared to the problems researchers found with WhatsApp, because of the relative ease with which new people can be inserted into private groups without any permission.

"The confidentiality of the group is broken as soon as the uninvited member can obtain all the new messages and read them", said Paul Rösler, one of the Ruhr University researchers speaking to Wired.

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With over 1.2 billion monthly active users, WhatsApp is available in more than 50 different languages around the world and in 10 Indian languages. The fear for some people is that this security flaw will result in WhatsApp being coerced by government agencies into allowing the flaw to be exploited to eavesdrop on conversations.

The researchers also spoke about the end-to-end encryption which was introduced by WhatsApp a couple of years ago. Only the administrator of a WhatsApp group can invite new members, but WhatsApp doesn't use any authentication mechanism for that invitation that its own servers can't spoof.

"We've looked at this issue carefully", a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

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In response to the study, Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, has said it won't fix the problem, and that group chats "remain protected" by the app's encryption. The concern raised here is that in groups with multiple administrators, the user can send out messages to multiple admins, fooling them about who invited the user.

While gaining access to WhatsApp servers are limited to the abilities of advanced hackers, the question is what happens when they gain access? In such a case, it is impossible for them to share details with enforcement agencies that they themselves can not access. Although participants will be notified about the new addition, with full control of the thread the attacker can choose to block messages about it. One example attack posited that former members of groups could record the group ID and use that for future attacks.

Given the alternatives, I think that's a pretty reasonable design decision, and I think this headline pretty substantially mischaracterizes the situation. "For example, it would be interesting to analyze the group chat implementations of other Signal-based messaging protocols, such as Google's Allo, Wire, and Facebook Messenger, or even non Signal-based protocols similarly to our investigation of Threema".

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WhatsApp noted that group members could view the other members of the group by tapping on "group info", though the security flaw would mean that encryption would not protect WhatsApp users who have not checked this and are therefore unaware that their group has been infiltrated.

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