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Apple to launch ‘lockdown mode’ to protect against Pegasus-style hacks

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Apple is launching a “lockdown mode” for its devices to protect people – including journalists and human rights activists – targeted by hacking attacks like those launched by government clients of NSO Group using its Pegasus spyware.

Apple will roll out the set in the autumn and believes it would have prevented previously known spyware attacks by closing down technical avenues for digital espionage. It said the lockdown mode was intended for users who face “grave, targeted threats to their digital security”.

The proliferation of mercenary spyware

The news is a sign of how the proliferation of mercenary spyware, or tools that can be used by government clients to hack into any phones and remotely control them, has become a major business concern for Apple and other phone makers.

The move comes after at least two Israeli firms have exploited flaws in Apple’s software to remotely break into iPhones without the target needing to click or tap anything. NSO Group, the maker of the “Pegasus” software that can carry out such attacks, has been sued by Apple and placed on a trade blacklist by U.S. officials.

“Lockdown Mode” will come to Apple’s iPhones

“Lockdown Mode” will come to Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and Macs this fall, and turning it on will block most attachments sent to the iPhone’s Messages app.

Here’s how it works: If users believe they may be at risk of or are notified that they are victims of a spyware attack (something Apple has been doing since November 2021), they can quickly enable Lockdown Mode, which is located in the Privacy & Security section of the Settings app. Once users select Lockdown Mode, their iPhone, iPad, or Mac will restart and the following features will be unavailable:

  • All message attachments in the Messages app—except for photos—from all senders
  • FaceTime calls from people you have not FaceTimed before
  • Various web browsing technologies are blocked, including advanced technologies such as just-in-time (JIT) JavaScript compilation
  • Shared photo albums and new Shared Albums requests in the Photos app
  • Wired connections from an iPhone to another device (via a USB cable), if the iPhone is locked
  • Invitations in Apple Services from people you have not interacted with before
  • Configuration profiles, such as those used by VPNs or school networks

Apple, which is suing NSO in the US,

said the new model was designed for users at risk of being targeted by some of the “most sophisticated digital threats, such as those from NSO Group and other private companies developing state-sponsored mercenary spyware.” It described the mode – which will come with iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura in the autumn – as an optional measure for a “very small number of users”.

Apple is offering a reward of $2m (£1.7m) to anyone who can find a way around the new setting. It also announced it is making a $10m grant to the Dignity and Justice Fund, a funding initiative established by the Ford Foundation to help it expose and investigate targeted cyber-attacks.

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