Apple is introducing a new “Lock Mode” setting to protect users such as journalists and political activists from high-powered hacking attacks from spyware applications. For example, NSO Group’s Pegasus, the software developed by Israel that allows the user to secretly spy on the owner of the device through the camera, screen and microphone.
On Wednesday, the company announced that the new setting will come with iOS 16, which will be released in the fall, explaining that the new setting is intended for users who face “serious and targeted threats to their digital security.” It will also be included with iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura.
Lockdown mode will block most message attachments and block incoming FaceTime calls from users that the device owner hasn’t contacted before. It will also prevent access to the iPhone when connected to a computer or accessory if the phone is in a locked state.
The NSO Group insists that it only sells its spyware to governments that it plans to use to track terrorists and other criminals, and claims that it thoroughly checks customers’ human rights records before allowing them to use the app. However, Pegasus has been exposed to spying on hundreds of journalists and political activists, and is believed to have been used to target tens of thousands more, according to a recent investigation.
The governments of several countries have been accused of using them against political opposition. While Apple has not disclosed how many iPhone users have been attacked by Pegasus or counterfeit software, it is suing the company in the United States.
The tech giant expects the mode to be used by “very few users”. It will only include those at risk of being targeted by “more sophisticated digital threats, such as those from the NSO Group and other private companies that develop state-sponsored mercenary spyware.” Meanwhile, it offered a $2 million bounty to anyone who could find a way to circumvent the new protection.
Pegasus can infect the phone through “zero pressure” attacks that do not require the user to download an attachment or otherwise interact with the hacker. Whereas previous versions of spyware required the user to click a link in a text message or email, newer versions of spyware exploit vulnerabilities in the device’s operating system, which means that the responsibility lies with Apple (or Google, in the case of phones Android) to ensure the safety of users.
Also, determining if the phone has been infected with the Pegasus virus is impossible for the average user, as the app hides itself in the root of the operating system and destroys itself if it is unable to “connect” for a certain period of time.