April 13, 2024

Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers a keynote speech during the European Union Privacy Conference at the European Union Parliament in Brussels, Belgium on October 24, 2018.

Eve Hermann | Reuters

Apple announced a new feature for iPhones called Lockdown Mode on Wednesday to protect high-profile users such as politicians and activists from state-sponsored hackers.

Lockdown Mode turns off many features on the iPhone to make it less vulnerable to spyware by reducing the number of features that attackers can access and possibly hack.

Specifically, it disables many of iMessage’s preview features, limits JavaScript on the Safari browser, prevents new configuration profiles from being installed, blocks wired connections—and thus prevents device data being copied—and shuts down incoming Apple service requests, Including FaceTime.

The tech giant will pay up to $2 million to researchers who find a vulnerability in Lockdown Mode.

The announcement comes months after it was revealed that state-sponsored hackers have the ability to hack recent iPhone models with “zero-click” attacks distributed through text messages. These attacks can be successful even if the victim has not clicked on a link.

The iPhone maker has faced increasing calls from governments to address the problem. In March, US lawmakers pressed Apple about the details of the attack, including whether it could detect it, how many attacks were detected, and when and where they occurred.

Most hackers are financially motivated, and most malware is designed to make the user give up valuable information such as a password or give the attacker access to financial accounts.

But the state-sponsored attacks targeted by Lockdown Mode are different: they use expensive tools sold directly to law enforcement agencies or sovereign governments, and they use undetected bugs to gain a foothold in the iPhone operating system. From there, attackers can do things like control the microphone and camera and steal a user’s browsing and communication history.

Lock mode is for a few people who think they might be targeted by a state sponsored hacker and need a maximum level of security. Among the victims targeted by military-grade spyware are journalists, rights activists and businessmen, according to the British newspaper The Guardian. to the Washington Post. Spyware is also allegedly used to target government officials, including French Minister And the Catalan separatist leaders in Spain.

“While the vast majority of users will never be victims of highly targeted cyber attacks, we will work tirelessly to protect the small number of users,” Ivan Krstic, Apple’s chief of security engineering and engineering, said in a statement.

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There are several types of mercenary spyware, but the most famous one is Pegasus, developed by the NSO Group in Israel. Recently, researchers at the University of Toronto And the AI It detected and documented versions of this type of spyware targeting iPhone devices.

The NSO Group previously stated that its technology is used legally by governments to fight pedophiles and terrorists.

The NSO Group is unpopular with big tech companies, especially Apple, which market their devices as more secure than the competition. Apple sued the NSO Group last year, saying it was malicious and that it is damage Apple’s business. Meta, a Facebook parent, is suing the NSO group over its alleged efforts to WhatsApp hack.

Last November, the US Department of Commerce Blacklisted NSO GroupBanning US companies from doing business with them is one of the most powerful measures the US government can take to strike at foreign companies.

Apple says the vast majority of the 1 billion iPhone users will never be targeted. Apple says mercenary spyware like Pegasus can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, so the tools are valuable and only used to target a small number of users. Once new versions of spyware are discovered, Apple patches the errors they use, rendering original vulnerabilities ineffective and forcing vendors like NSO Group to reconfigure how their tools work.

Apple said that Lock Mode won’t be turned on by default, but it can be turned on from within the iPhone’s settings with a single click. It will also be available for iPad and Mac.

The new feature will be available for testing on an iOS beta this week ahead of a massive release planned for the fall.

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