Monday July 22, 2019
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More Than 87,000 Groups on WhatsApp Targeting Voters: Report

The task is enormous and the stakes are high

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WhatsApp on a smartphone device. Pixabay

The first phase of voting begins from April 11 and WhatsApp – and not its parent company Facebook – has turned out to be the biggest social media platform for more than 87,000 groups to target millions with political messaging.

According to WhatsApp, over 20 crore Monthly Active Users (MAUs) are using its platform in India, but the fact is that these numbers are dated back to February 2017 and the company has not shared latest India numbers for over two years now.

India today has nearly 43 crore smartphone users, according to Hong Kong-based Counterpoint Research.

If we go by these numbers, 20 crore can’t be a right figure as almost every smartphone owner – from your grandpa to the maid at home — uses WhatsApp and is a potential target for the groups working round-the-clock to reach them.

“By the end of 2016, India had nearly 28-30 crore smartphone users. Today, it has crossed 40 crore.

“People across age-groups are using WhatsApp so it is safe to say that the Facebook-owned platform reaches over 30 crore Indians, almost to the size of Facebook users in the country or even bigger,” Tarun Pathak, Associate Director at Counterpoint Research, told IANS.

With Reliance Jio, data has gone ultra-cheap and political parties are now seen to livestream rallies, press meets and TV debates on Facebook and YouTube to reach their target audiences in the hinterlands.

“Over 87,000 groups aiming to influence the voters are currently active on WhatsApp. From fake statistics related to various government policies to news promoting regional violence, manipulated political news, government scams, historical myths, propaganda to patriotism and Hindu nationalism — WhatsApp has it all in the election season,” informed social media expert Anoop Mishra.

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FILE – The WhatsApp icon is seen on a smartphone in this picture illustration, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. VOA

One WhatsApp Group can have a maximum of 256 users so these 87,000 groups can reach over 2.2 crore people directly.

Now imagine one user from these groups forwarding one message to five (maximum forward limit on WhatsApp) and these groups can actually engage a much bigger audience in their mission to influence voters.

Realising the importance of curbing fake news, WhatsApp has launched several initiatives, from awareness programmes on dangers of fake news on TV, radio and digital platforms to limiting the number of forwards to five.

It has also tied up with the Nasscom Foundation to train nearly 1,00,000 Indians to spot false information and provide tips and tricks to stay safe on WhatsApp.

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“We’re pleased that the recent changes we’ve made to limit viral content and educate users is having an impact. This work is never done — there is more that we can and will do,” WhatsApp India head Abhijit Bose said in a statement recently.

WhatsApp, including other social media firms, will now have to process any request from the Election Commission to take down content within three hours during the 48-hour period before voting days.

The task is enormous and the stakes are high.

“WhatsApp has been trying to curb the spread of fake news but has got a little success in doing so. Let us see how the things unfold as we enter the crucial election time,” added Mishra. (IANS)

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Researchers Reveal Vulnerabilities that Allowed Hackers to Manipulate Images on WhatsApp and Telegram

WhatsApp saves files to external storage automatically, while Telegram does so when the "Save to Gallery" feature is enabled

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The security flaw, dubbed "Media File Jacking", affected WhatsApp for Android by default. Pixabay

If you thought instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram that provide end-to-end encryption give you rock-solid security, think again. Researchers from cyber-security firm Symantec on Monday revealed vulnerabilities that allowed hackers to manipulate the images and audio files you receive on these platforms.

The security flaw, dubbed “Media File Jacking”, affected WhatsApp for Android by default, and Telegram for Android if certain features were enabled, Symantec researchers said in a blog post.

According to the researchers, WhatsApp saves files to external storage automatically, while Telegram does so when the “Save to Gallery” feature is enabled. However, neither apps have any system in place to protect users from a Media File Jacking attack, the researchers from Symantec’s Modern OS Security team explained.

Attackers could exploit this vulnerability to scam victims in various ways.

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If you thought instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram that provide end-to-end encryption give you rock-solid security, think again. Pixabay

“If the security flaw is exploited, a malicious attacker could misuse and manipulate sensitive information such as personal photos and videos, corporate documents, invoices, and voice memos,” wrote Software Engineer Alon Gat and Yair Amit, Vice-President and Chief Technology Officer, Modern OS Security, Symantec.

Giving example of image manipulation, the researchers said a seemingly innocent, but actually malicious, app downloaded by a user could manipulate personal photos in near-real time and without the victim knowing.

The app runs in the background and performs a “Media File Jacking attack” while the victim uses WhatsApp. It monitors for photos received through the app, identifies faces in photos, and replaces them with something else, such as other faces or objects.

“A WhatsApp user may send a family photo to one of their contacts, but what the recipient sees is actually a modified photo. While this attack may seem trivial and just a nuisance, it shows the feasibility of manipulating images on the fly,” said the blog post.

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Using the same vulnerability, the attackers could make payment manipulation, audio message spoofing or spread fake news.

“In one of the most damaging Media File Jacking attacks, a malicious actor can manipulate an invoice sent by a vendor to a customer, to trick the customer into making a payment to an illegitimate account,” Gat and Amit wrote.

“The Media File Jacking threat is especially concerning in light of the common perception that the new generation of IM (instant messaging) apps are immune to content manipulation and privacy risks, thanks to the utilisation of security mechanisms like end-to-end encryption,” they added.

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Researchers from cyber-security firm Symantec on Monday revealed vulnerabilities that allowed hackers to manipulate the images and audio files. Pixabay

Reports in May revealed that a bug in WhatsApp’s audio call feature allowed hackers to install spyware onto Android and iOS phones just by calling the target. The spyware was reportedly developed by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group.

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WhatsApp had said it identified and “promptly” fixed the vulnerability that could enable an attacker to insert and execute code on mobile devices. (IANS)