A journalist has reported on Twitter that WhatsApp groups may not be as secure as users think because the “Invite to Group via Link” feature allows groups to be indexed by Google, thereby making them available across the Internet.
Chats conducted on the end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp can be joined by people who are given an invite URL link but until now it has not been thought that invite links could be indexed by Google (and other search engines) and found in simple searches. However, it appears that group links that have been shared outside of the secure, private messaging app could be found (and joined).
The consequences of these 45,000+ invite links being found in searches are that they can be joined and details like the names and phone numbers of the participants can be accessed. Targeted searches can reveal links to groups based around a number of sensitive subjects.
Even though WhatsApp group admins can invalidate existing links, WhatsApp generates a new link meaning that the original link isn’t totally disabled.
Only Share Links With Trusted Contacts
Users of WhatsApp are warned to share the link only with trusted contacts, and the links that were shown in Google searches appeared because the URLs were publicly listed i.e. shared outside of the app.
Although Google already offers tools for sites to block content from being listed in search results, since the discovery (and subsequently publicity) of the WhatsApp Invite links being indexed, some commentators have reported that this no longer happens in Google. It has also been reported, however, that publicly posted WhatsApp Invite links can still be found using other popular search engines.
Recent Security Incident
One other high profile incident reported recently, which may cause some users to question the level of security of WhatsApp was the story about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezo’s phone allegedly being hacked by unknown parties thought to be acting for Saudi Arabia after a mysterious video was sent to Mr Bezo’s phone.
Also, last May there were reports of an attack on WhatsApp which was thought to be a ‘zero-day’ exploit that was used to load spyware onto the victim’s phone. Once the victim’s WhatsApp had been hijacked and the spyware loaded onto the phone, for example, access may have been given to encrypted chats, photos, contacts and other information. That kind of attack may also have allowed eavesdropping on calls and turning on the microphone and camera, as well as enabling attackers to alter the call logs and hide the method of infection. At the time, it was reported that the attack may have originated from a private Israeli company, The NSO Group.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
In this case, although it’s alarming that the details of many group members may have been exposed, it is likely to be because links for those groups were posted publicly and not shared privately with trusted members as the app recommends. That said, it’s of little comfort for those who believed that their WhatsApp group membership and personal details are always totally private. It’s good news, therefore, that Google appears to have taken some action to prevent it from happening in the future. Hopefully, other search engines will now do the same.
WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption, which should mean that it is secure, and considering that it has at least 1.5 billion users worldwide, surprisingly few stories have emerged that have brought the general security of the app into question.