Apple (AAPL) on Thursday unveiled a unique new security feature designed specifically to tackle the kind of dangerous spyware that governments use to spy on everyone from political dissidents and activists to journalists around the world.
The feature, called Lockdown Mode and available later this year with the release of iOS 16, iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura, will allow Apple users to cut off access to a host of communication features on their devices, ensuring, at least for now, that malicious actors cannot access your information.
The reason for the new security capability? Apple’s ongoing fight against Israel’s NSO Group and its Pegasus software, a powerful piece of spyware that can remotely absorb all information on a target device without the victim knowing.
“Apple makes the most secure mobile devices on the market. Lockdown Mode is an innovative capability that reflects our unwavering commitment to protecting users from even the rarest and most sophisticated attacks,” Apple Chief of Engineering and Security Architecture Ivan Krstić said in a statement.
But while Apple’s update will remove current versions of NSO Group’s software, it’s far from a permanent fix. And NSO Group, and its competitors, could eventually break through Apple’s security barriers again.
Apple’s fight against Pegasus
Apple is quick to point out that lockdown mode is for a very specific group of users. So if you’re not a head of state or corporation, political activist or dissident, you probably don’t need to enable the feature.
However, when activated, Lockdown Mode creates a kind of panic room for your Apple device. Disable attachments and link previews in the Messages app, disable certain web technologies in the Browser app, block things like FaceTime calls unless you’ve previously called a person, and more.
Apple says it will continue to develop lockdown mode and release updates in the future. The company is also paying up to $2 million to hackers who can find bugs that break lockdown mode, an industry high. Companies regularly pay hackers to break their software in an effort to find bugs that can be used to create malware.
The latest piece of spyware
However, NSO Group’s Pegasus software is not your average piece of malware. It’s more or less the Holy Grail of spyware, giving the company’s customers, which include governments like Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, unlimited access to everything on a target’s Apple device.
Initially, the software required targets to unknowingly click on a malicious link sent to an iPhone, but a minor version could be installed on a device without the target having to do anything. In either situation, the target would never know that the software was installed on their device.
According to The Guardian, the spyware was used to track associates of slain Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. US intelligence officials believe Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
It’s such a powerful technology that, in November 2021, the Commerce Department blacklisted NSO Group, removing its ability to buy American products.
Apple has been fighting the NSO Group and others like it for some time. In November, the company filed a lawsuit against the spyware maker in California alleging that it attacked Apple, its services and its customers. The iPhone maker isn’t the only tech giant going after NSO Group, either. WhatsApp parent Meta (META) is also suing the company after it developed spyware that could be installed on victims’ devices via WhatsApp messages.
While Apple is working to end Pegasus’ ability to gain access to user devices, the NSO Group will likely continue to develop new ways to access Apple software. It’s not just an Apple issue, either.
Regardless of how well-funded a technology company may be, adversaries creating code designed to exploit its software will always be ahead of the game. That’s because, at the end of the day, people create the software that powers the tech giants’ products. And since bad actors spend all their time trying to crack that software, they are always one step ahead of the good guys.
Still, Apple’s launch is important because it will protect its most vulnerable users. However, how long it will last is another question.
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