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Apple to release new 'Lockdown Mode' as it battles spyware firms

07 July 2022 - 17:54 By Stephen Nellis
A customer holds a green Apple iPhone 13 pro in New York. File photo.
A customer holds a green Apple iPhone 13 pro in New York. File photo.
Image: Mike Segar/Reuters

Apple plans to release a new feature called “Lockdown Mode” this autumn that aims to add a new layer of protection for human rights advocates, political dissidents and other targets of sophisticated hacking attacks, the company said on Wednesday.

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 US officials.

“Lockdown Mode” will come to Apple's iPhones, iPads and Macs this autumn and turning it on will block most attachments sent to the iPhone's Messages app. Security researchers believe NSO Group exploited a flaw in how Apple handled message attachments. The new mode will also block wired connections to iPhones when they are locked. Israeli firm Cellebrite has used such manual connections to access iPhones.

Apple representatives said sophisticated attacks the new feature was designed to fight — called “zero click” hacking techniques — were still relatively rare and most users would not need to activate the new mode.

Spyware companies have argued they sell high-powered technology to help governments thwart national security threats. But human rights groups and journalists have repeatedly documented the use of spyware to attack civil society, undermine political opposition and interfere with elections.

To help harden the new feature, Apple said it would pay up to $2m (about R33.5m) for each flaw security researchers found in the new mode, which was the highest such “bug bounty” offered in the industry.

Apple also said it was making a $10m (R167.4m) grant plus any possible proceeds from its lawsuit against NSO Group to groups that found, exposed and worked to prevent targeted hacking. The grant would go to the Dignity and Justice Fund established by the Ford Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the US. 



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