WhatsApp, Signal & Co: Billions of Users Vulnerable to Privacy Attacks

Researchers from the Technical University of Darmstadt and the University of Würzburg show that popular mobile messengers expose personal data via discovery services that allow users to find contacts based on phone numbers from their address book.


Private Daten aus WhatsApp, Signal und Telegram zu ziehen, stellt Hacker vor keine hohe technische Hürde.

Pulling private data from WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram does not present hackers with a high technical hurdle. (Image: Daniel Sambraus / iStockphoto.com)

When installing a mobile messenger like WhatsApp, new users can instantly start texting existing contacts based on the phone numbers stored on their device. For this to happen, users must grant the app permission to access and regularly upload their address book to company servers in a process called mobile contact discovery. A recent study by a team of researchers from the Secure Software Systems Group at the University of Würzburg and the Cryptography and Privacy Engineering Group at TU Darmstadt shows that currently deployed contact discovery services severely threaten the privacy of billions of users. Utilizing very few resources, the researchers were able to perform practical crawling attacks on the popular messengers WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram. The results of the experiments demonstrate that malicious users or hackers can collect sensitive data at a large scale and without noteworthy restrictions by querying contact discovery services for random phone numbers.

Attackers are enabled to build accurate behavior models

For the extensive study, the researchers queried 10% of all US mobile phone numbers for WhatsApp and 100% for Signal. Thereby, they were able to gather personal (meta) data commonly stored in the messengers’ user profiles, including profile pictures, nicknames, status texts and the “last online” time. The analyzed data also reveals interesting statistics about user behavior. For example, very few users change the default privacy settings, which for most messengers are not privacy-friendly at all. The researchers found that about 50% of WhatsApp users in the US have a public profile picture and 90% a public “About” text. Interestingly, 40% of Signal users, which can be assumed to be more privacy concerned in general, are also using WhatsApp, and every other of those Signal users has a public profile picture on WhatsApp. Tracking such data over time enables attackers to build accurate behavior models. When the data is matched across social networks and public data sources, third parties can also build detailed profiles, for example to scam users. For Telegram, the researchers found that its contact discovery service exposes sensitive information even about owners of phone numbers who are not registered with the service.

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