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14 January 2018, 12:15 | Yvette Williams
WhatsApp messages are heavily encrypted but German researchers have found a vulnerability in group chatsReuters
Cryptographers from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany said that once a new member was added to a group the phone number of each member of the group automatically shares secret keys with that person, giving them full access to all future messages.
A bug in WhatsApp means it's possible to sneak into private chats without any admin permissions, despite the Facebook-owned company's best efforts with encryption.
Now, a group of German cryptographers from Ruhr University shared its findings during the Real World Crypto security conference, which was held in Switzerland.
A security flaw in the encrypted mobile messaging service WhatsApp could enable hackers to spy on private group chats, researchers warn.
According to WABetaInfo, a fan site that tests new WhatsApp features early, the new option, present in the Group Info section as "Dismiss as admin", allows an administrator to dismiss another one without removing him or her from the group. "Thereby it can cache sent messages to the group, read their content first and decide in which order they are delivered to the members", the research states. "On WhatsApp, existing members of a group are notified when new people are added", said Stamos. WhatsApp is a widely used messenger and is available in more than 60 different languages which include 10 Indian languages.
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An attacker would have to take control of WhatsApp servers which means a sophisticated hacker, a WhatsApp staffer or a government with legal authority could gain access, even though end-to-end encryption is supposed to protect users from even these sorts of attacks.
A security researcher at Signal, which licenses its rules of conduct to WhatsApp, said that the current design of he app is fair and that the report only sends a message to other people not to "build security into your products, because that makes you a target for researchers, even if you make the right decisions".
The flaw - detailed in a paper - shows how it is possible to add a participant into a conversation without the permission of the person in control of the group.
Furthermore, Alex Stamos, the chief security officer for Facebook, posted his opinion on Twitter regarding the supposed threat. Clients of a group retrieve membership from the server, and clients encrypt all messages they send e2e to all group members. "And if not, the value of encryption is very little", researcher Paul Rösler was quoted saying in the report. "I think it would be better if the server didn't have metadata visibility into group membership, but that's a largely unsolved problem, and it's unrelated to confidentiality of group messages", he added. We built WhatsApp so group messages can not be sent to a hidden user. But there is no [sic] a secret way into WhatsApp groups chats'.
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