October 1, 2023

Apple said Wednesday that it will introduce a new “lockdown mode” to its upcoming iPhone and Mac software that will turn off some features intended to help targeted individuals combat government spyware.

The tech giant said the new feature is “maximum optional protection” for device owners who are likely to be targeted by nation-states with powerful spyware, such as journalists, activists and human rights defenders.

The feature arrived after years of repeated and successful attacks targeting thousands of iPhone users around the world. Spyware makers such as NSO Group, Candiru, and Cytrox build vulnerabilities that penetrate device security measures in order to implant spyware on behalf of their government clients. Apple usually speeds up the release of security updates for its devices, but broader efforts to beef up its iPhone vulnerabilities against these types of vulnerabilities have not always been successful.

Security researchers say it’s not uncommon for government spyware to read messages and call logs, download photos, record device microphone and phone calls, take pictures with a phone’s camera, access victim passwords, and track phone location in real time.

Screenshot showing what Lockdown Mode will look like in iOS 16. Image credits: Apple (provider)

When Lock Mode is rolled out, those exposed to targeted hacking attempts can immediately disable a number of features, such as limiting the code that can run in apps and on websites and drastically limiting other areas of Apple’s software, such as iMessage and FaceTime, that have been abused They are used by spyware makers to create exploits capable of implanting spyware on iPhones.

Lock mode will also prevent iPhones and Macs from installing configuration profiles, which organizations typically use to roll out settings and security protections across fleets of devices, but are also misused by consumer-level spyware to secretly monitor and download the contents of victim devices. Wired connections are also blocked when lock mode is enabled, which prevents hardware forensic tools from downloading device data.

in FunctionApple said the new shutdown feature “further strengthens device defenses and strictly limits certain functions, sharply reducing the attack surface that can be exploited by highly targeted mercenary spyware.”

Apple said the feature will come to iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura, which are set to launch later this year alongside Apple’s new iPhones.

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