Apple adds ‘lockdown’ security to iPhones, iPads and Macs

CUPERTINO, California. – Apple said it will roll out a “lockdown” option for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers intended to protect against spyware released by state-sponsored hackers – although enabling that protection also makes these devices less useful makes.

The security announcement announced Wednesday is a tacit admission that even Apple – the world’s most valuable company – has not been able to adequately protect the iPhone and its other products from breaches by state-backed hackers and commercial spyware. Governments have used these tools to invade the privacy of journalists, political dissidents and human rights activists.

The new feature, called “lockdown mode”, will initially be offered as a test version so that security researchers can help Apple identify any bugs or weaknesses. Apple usually releases its major updates to its device’s operating systems in late September.

While only a handful of countries seem to have the resources to develop in-house mobile phone hacking tools, private companies like Israel’s NSO Group have been selling phone hacking software to government agencies around the world for years.

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The growing hacker-for-hire problem prompted Apple: filed a federal lawsuit late last year against NSO Group for breaking into iPhones and other Apple products. In its complaint, Apple accused NSO Group employees of being “21st century amoral mercenaries who have created highly sophisticated cybersurveillance machines that routinely and blatantly provoke abuse.”

NSO, which has been blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce, denies any wrongdoing and says its products have been used to thwart child abusers and terrorists.

Unlike the security features Apple builds into most of its software, the company’s lock feature is intended as an emergency button that Apple expects to be needed by only a small number of users.

The lock measure is considered a last resort for people who are targeted by spyware, as activating the lock will disable many popular features. That includes sending attachments and links in texts, as well as the ability to receive FaceTime calls from new numbers. Web browsing will also be restricted.

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But Apple believes the extra layer of protection will be valuable to activists, journalists and other targets of hacking attacks launched by well-funded groups. Users can activate and deactivate the lock mode at will.

The increasing use of encrypted communications via phone apps such as WhatsApp and Signal has prompted governments to use commercial spyware vendors to collect information about targets.

Such mobile phone spyware sucks up text messages, emails and photos while secretly controlling a smartphone’s microphones and cameras. Some of the more advanced tools can infect a phone using so-called “zero click” exploits that do not rely on the user accidentally activating them, such as clicking a malicious link.

Google, whose Android mobile phone platform is used by iPhone competitors, has also been targeted by commercial spyware vendors. The company’s Threat Analysis Group says it tracks more than 30 such companies and regularly publishes reports of exploits used to hack phones, making them much less effective.

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Google also offers an “Advanced Protection Program” that uses special security key hardware to make user accounts more difficult to hack. The company said it strongly recommends the program for “journalists, activists, businessmen and people involved in elections”.

Separately, Apple has also provided more details about a $10 million grant it pledged last November to counter large-scale hacking attacks. The money goes to the Dignity and Justice Funda philanthropic arm of the Ford Foundation.

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