Last week, WhatsApp, a popular messaging app owned by Facebook, told the U.S. Department of Justice that the app had been used to install malicious code on mobile devices. Hackers were able to install software from a third-party provider using WhatsApps' voice calling feature, even if the call wasn't answered. WhatsApp says that it isn't sure yet of the extent of the hack, which is concerning in its own right, and is urging customers to immediately update to the latest version of the app.
What should be even more alarming to WhatsApp's more than 1.5 billion users is that the hack is the result of a product sold by an Israeli company that specializes in providing spy technology to Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies.
That company, NSO Group, is the developer of a product that can turn on a phone's microphone or camera and is able to access data on a device, including emails. It says its software is designed to fight terrorism, but clearly, some have found other uses for it.
In fact, the whole thing demonstrates a reality that most of us would rather not contemplate: Most of your digital life is simply not nearly as private as you think it is.
Facebook has long faced criticism over privacy issues, and even announced a new focus on helping users better control their personal information. When it purchased WhatsApp, one of the selling points was that the app includes end-to-end encryption, meaning that your messages were private and couldn't be accessed even by Facebook. The company has even made a move to incorporate the same type of encryption in all of its messaging apps.
Unfortunately, the race for better privacy control is being quietly met by an equally forceful move to invade our privacy. Whether it's companies who track our activity online, use our personal data to create advertising profiles, or in this case, create software that overtly spys on us, privacy actually is becoming a luxury.
There are two lessons here. If you are a consumer (which we all are), it's up to you to be vigilant in protecting your privacy. While it's impossible to prevent hacks like this that you don't even know are happening, you can be intentional about how you use technology.
For example, take advantage of settings that automatically update your apps and operating system. That way you won't have to worry about whether you're running the most secure versions on your device. And while it wouldn't have stopped this particular attack, don't click on links in messages from unknown senders.
If you're a business leader or entrepreneur, know this: The companies that are vigilant in both protecting and respecting their customers' privacy will be the ones that earn trust. The companies that are transparent about how they help customers control their data, and that work hard to keep that information secure, are the ones that will continue to reap the benefits of that trust.
Developers like WhatsApp are fighting an increasingly sophisticated battle, but considering that these hackers used software that is a tool of government agencies, I think we can all agree that it's up to them be proactive about fixing this type of vulnerability before it affects any of their customers. Otherwise, they'll lose all trust when it comes to protecting their customers.
It turns out that trust is becoming the most valuable of business currencies.