Whats up with WhatsApp’s Security?
Posted Thursday, February 20, 2014, 5:29 PM CST by Paul Jauregui
Vulnerabilities found in Facebook’s new multi-billion dollar mobile app. Are WhatsApps’s 430 million users at risk?
If you haven’t heard by now, Facebook announced its acquisition of WhatsApp yesterday for a reported $19 billion. If you’re not familiar with WhatsApp, it is a cross-platform mobile messaging app that allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. It has basically done for messaging what Skype did for voice and video calls. By using the Internet as its communications backbone, WhatsApp is on a shortlist of companies that have completely transformed personal communications, which was previously dominated by the world’s largest wireless carriers.
Facebook is buying in to WhatsApp’s over 430 million active users, which in itself was a milestone the company reached as of January 20, 2014. The fact that it reached a user base of that size faster than any other company in history is no small feat for its small team of 32 engineers. The service processes 50 billion messages every day across seven platforms. Sequoia Capital, the sole investor in $19 billion WhatsApp, calls its crew of developers “L E G E N D A R Y” for their ability to support 12 million active users for every one single developer—an impressive ratio—but who was in charge of security?
The WhatsApp acquisition comes on the heels of Facebook’s unsuccessful attempt to buy Snapchat for $3 billion. Shortly after Snapchat dismissed the offer, the company took a massive blow from hackers when 4.6 million of its users’ accounts were exposed in a very public security breach. Will Facebook’s new WhatsApp suffer the same fate now that the spotlight and attention begins to grow on the $19 billion mobile messaging app?
Why Look at WhatsApp’s Security?
Facebook’s acquisition announcement coincided with the starting week of Project Neptune’s beta program. Project Neptune is Praetorian’s new mobile application security testing platform that allows companies to keep pace with rapid mobile development cycles by incorporating continuous, on-demand security testing. And what’s a better way to properly kick off our beta program than to test a publicly available mobile app worth $19 billion?
Within minutes, Project Neptune picked up on several SSL-related security issues affecting the confidentiality of WhatsApp user data that passes in transit to back-end servers. This is the kind of stuff the NSA would love. It basically allows them—or an attacker—to man-in-the-middle the connection and then downgrade the encryption so they can break it and sniff the traffic. These security issues put WhatsApp user information and communications at risk.
The security test cases selected in Project Neptune were nonintrusive and limited in scope. Praetorian would need authorization from Facebook and WhatsApp to conduct a more thorough security evaluation of the mobile applications and back-end infrastructure. Despite the limitations in scope, the following were among the security issues that Neptune identified:
Update 02/21/2014: WhatsApp is actively working on adding SSL Pinning now
Update 02/21/2014: We no longer find evidence of export cipher support.
Update 02/21/2014: We no longer find evidence of null cipher support.
Update 02/21/2014: We no longer find evidence of SSLv2 support.
How Difficult Would it be for WhatsApp to Fix These Issues?
Not very difficult. The biggest challenge most developers have with security is understanding how their design decisions impact the integrity of an application. Mobile is still a new frontier for many developers. Unfortunately, security considerations often take a backseat when there is still uncharted space to explore with new technologies.
In the case of implementing certificate pinning, for example, there are a few things to consider. Pinning the certificate itself is the simpler way to do it, but it requires more maintenance overtime because developers will have to make changes to the application whenever the cert changes. Another way to do it is by pinning the public key, which can be more difficult. Choosing the best way to go often depends on the frequency in which the certificate itself may change. More details can be found in OWASP technical guide to certificate and public key pinning.
Surprisingly, it’s extremely common to see mobile apps without certificate pinning. This security control is used to counter the ability of an attacker to view and modify all traffic passing between the mobile device and backend server. It can also help protect against certificate authority trust failures during client and server negotiation, which coupled with the support of weak and null (plain text) ciphers—as found to be the case in WhatsApp—is an even bigger red flag.
Developers need a partner, with a deep understanding of application security, who can keep pace with the rapid speed of mobile development. One that can be with them throughout the mobile development lifecycle—from start to finish. We believe technology will fill this gap and we believe Project Neptune is the answer.
Mobile Has Fundamentally Changed the Security Landscape Forever
Organizations need to keep pace with rapid mobile development cycles by incorporating continuous, on-demand security testing. With Project Neptune, we are evolving the way mobile development teams address security challenges they encounter while building and maintaining mobile apps. Mobile moves too fast for security to still remain as an afterthought. It’s time for a fundamental change in the way developers build secure mobile applications. Our team is dedicated to helping the world’s leading companies deliver security mobile apps faster and more efficiently.
Learn more about Project Neptune and how you can participate in the private beta program. Get ready to find, track, and prioritize mobile app vulnerabilities with ease.