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[April 30, 2014]
University of New Haven researchers expose vulnerabilities in popular apps, draw worldwide attention [New Haven Register, Conn. :: ]
(New Haven Register (CT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) May 01--WEST HAVEN -- A group of University of New Haven computer security researchers has drawn global attention over the past two weeks by revealing security vulnerabilities in two popular messaging apps that together have more than 600 million users worldwide.
First the University of New Haven Cyber Forensics Research & Education Group, led by assistant professor Ibrahim "Abe" Baggili, rocked the cyber world by revealing a vulnerability in the popular What'sApp messaging software.
Then, just a few days later, the UNH group revealed multiple vulnerabilities in the popular Viber chat app, a competitor to WhatsApp, demonstrating that not only is information uploaded via the app not encrypted when sent to Viber's servers, but it is stored on those servers in that unencrypted state as well.
The bugs allow data sent using the apps, which both are heavily used overseas, to be easily intercepted, making it possible for anyone who knows what to do to eavesdrop on users' private communications, Baggili said Wednesday.
"This is what we call 'white hat' hacking, like hacking for the good," said Baggili, a native of Jordan who grew up in the United Arab Emirates before earning his doctorate at Purdue University, and who oversees an equally diverse team.
"What we did was, we notified the company and then we released it to the public." In the initial case, WhatsApp responded quickly to what the group found, said Baggili, who arrived at UNH six months ago from Zayed University in Abu Dabi, where he was director of that university's Advanced Cyber Forensics Research Laboratory.
"Viber never responded to us directly, but they responded directly to CNET" after the influential tech website wrote about the vulnerabilities, said Baggili, who lives in New Haven.
"Not only are things being sent in an unencrypted way ... but they're also being stored in an unencrypted format ..." he said. "It means that the data that's going through the service provider is completely unencrypted ... that data can be intercepted and it could be harmful ...
"This is a big one," he said of the latest discovery. "This one just went worldwide." Viber told CNET the problem should be fixed soon.
"This issue has already been resolved," the company said in a statement CNET reported last week. "It is currently in QA [quality assurance testing], and the fix will be released for Android and submitted to Apple on Monday. As of today we aren't aware of a single user who has been affected by this." On Wednesday, CNET reported that the Android version of Viber no longer sends images and videos without encryption protection, and the company says an Apple fix has been submitted.
YouTube videos on the WhatsApp and Viber findings each have gone viral, garnering more than 36,000 and more than 19,000 hits, respectively, as of Wednesday evening.
Viber lets users make free calls, send free texts and share photos. It also lets Viber users send video and voice messages to other users for free.
WhatsApp is similar, letting users exchange messages using various mobile phone platforms. WhatsApp users can create groups and send other members unlimited images, video and audio messages without having to pay SMS, or text messaging, fees.
The UNH researchers found, however, that when users shared their location with WhatsApp -- recently acquired by Facebook in a deal said to be worth $19 billion -- the WhatsApp software "called out" to Google Maps without using secure channels.
Baggili and his team, which also includes UNH students Jason Moore of Branford, Mohammed Al Saif, originally of Saudi Arabia, and Atefeh Masihzadeh, who is originally from Iran, were working on a network forensics project when they uncovered the WhatsApp vulnerability, he said.
They are among about eight students who work with the research group, said Baggili.
"This is the place to study cyber-forensics and cybersecurity," he said.
Moore, who is Baggili's research assistant -- and was involved in both discoveries -- said, "I just think the public should know what they're using and just be aware that the stuff that they put up on the Internet can be forever, if it's not cared for properly." By cared for, he means encrypted, he said.
Moore, a University of Connecticut graduate and former Electric Boat worker, said he was not entirely shocked at the broad response to the revelations.
"Security's big right now, so it was not really surprising," he said, although "it was a little bigger than I thought." For more information about UNHcFREG's activities and research, visit
Call Mark Zaretsky at 203-789-5722. Have questions, feedback or ideas about our news coverage? Connect directly with the editors of the New Haven Register at AskTheRegister.com.
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