Apple Inc. landed a major blow for privacy yesterday. It announced a new Lockdown Mode, designed to stop even the most sophisticated spyware attacks:
Apple today detailed two initiatives to help protect users who may be personally targeted by some of the most sophisticated digital threats, such as those from private companies developing state-sponsored mercenary spyware. Lockdown Mode — the first major capability of its kind, coming this fall with iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura — is an extreme, optional protection for the very small number of users who face grave, targeted threats to their digital security.
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The new feature will be released this summer to developers and fully available this fall. It blocks numerous exploits that spyware uses:
At launch, Lockdown Mode includes the following protections:
• Messages: Most message attachment types other than images are blocked. Some features, like link previews, are disabled.
• Apple services: Incoming invitations and service requests, including FaceTime calls, are blocked if the user has not previously sent the initiator a call or request.
• Wired connections with a computer or accessory are blocked when iPhone is locked.
• Configuration profiles cannot be installed, and the device cannot enroll into mobile device management (MDM), while Lockdown Mode is turned on.
In all, this still sounds like a pretty usable phone to me.
Most websites should work and phone calls are unaffected. You can even send pictures to your friends!
Apple appears to have done a great job in balancing usability and security. After all, if Lockdown Mode bricks your phone, no one will use it.
Apple is even offering up to $2 million to anyone who can break Lockdown Mode. So start coding, folks!
Most of us probably don’t need this type of protection. But for dissidents or persecuted minorities, it could be critical:
“The global spyware trade targets human rights defenders, journalists, and dissidents; it facilitates violence, reinforces authoritarianism, and supports political repression,” said Lori McGlinchey, the Ford Foundation’s director of its Technology and Society program.
Lockdown Mode could also protect heads of state. Angela Merkel had her phone hacked while serving as Chancellor of Germany.
Other world leaders probably have spyware on their phones right now, even if they don’t know it.
Apple is not alone in addressing aggressive spyware. Google has a feature called Advanced Account Protection that adds security to logins and downloads.
It’s unclear which company offers the better package for high risk users. But I’m glad both are taking the issue seriously.
The main enemy for Apple and Google in the security fight is an obscure Israeli company.
NSO Group produces spyware called Pegasus. It can infiltrate phones without any user action.
From Scientific American:
Since 2019, Pegasus users have been able to install the software on smartphones with a missed call on WhatsApp, and can even delete the record of the missed call, making it impossible for the phone’s owner to know anything is amiss. Another way is by simply sending a message to a user’s phone that produces no notification.
Once installed, Pegasus can theoretically harvest any data from the device and transmit it back to the attacker. It can steal photos and videos, recordings, location records, communications, web searches, passwords, call logs and social media posts. It also has the capability to activate cameras and microphones for real-time surveillance without the permission or knowledge of the user.
It’s striking that no matter how careful you are about passwords or clicking links, you’re not safe from Pegasus.
The software has been used by authoritarian regimes for surveillance. Some evidence suggests it was used by the Saudis to locate and kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Even as it threatens others, NSO Group itself is threatened with extinction.
US sanctions has wreaked havoc on its business. An acquisition by a US defense contractor could save it, but it faces government opposition.
Without a white knight coming to the rescue, NSO may not survive.
And I say good riddance. An unscrupulous company that sells tools to dictators to track and kill dissidents needs to die.
What do you think of Apple’s Lockdown Mode and digital surveillance? Leave a comment at the bottom and let me know!
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Photo: Apple CEO Tim Cook