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Apple’s new ‘lockdown’ mode designed to shield iPhone and Mac users from cyber threats

In a bid to shield users operating in the Apple ecosystem, the tech giant is set to launch “lockdown mode” to protect against Pegasus-style hacks.

user iconReporter
Thu, 07 Jul 2022
Apple’s new ‘lockdown’ mode designed to shield iPhone and Mac users from cyber threats
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Apple has announced that it will roll out "lockdown mode" setting as part of iOS 16, iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura released later this year.

According to the company, "lockdown mode" is designed to enable its devices to protect people, which include journalists, human rights activists, often targeted by hacking attacks like those launched by government clients of NSO Group using its Pegasus spyware.

The news is a sign of how the proliferation of mercenary spyware, according to The Guardian, as such tools that can be used by government clients to hack into any phones and remotely control them, has become a major business concern for Apple and other phone manufacturers.

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The company's latest security move reveals that the new function acknowledges the seriousness of hacking threats. Apple believes it would have prevented previously known spyware attacks by closing down technical avenues for digital espionage. The lockdown mode is intended for users who face "grave, targeted threats to their digital security".

The protections offered by lockdown mode include blocking most message attachments, blocking incoming FaceTime calls if the user has not previously called the initiator or sent a request for a call, and blocking access to an iPhone when it is connected to a computer or accessory when locked.

Comparing Apple's lockdown mode to the introduction of two-factor authentication, the new setting would "definitely" make it more challenging for clients of NSO Group and other companies to successfully target individuals, according to Ron Deibert, founder and head of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School.

"In other words, it's introducing some security measure that reduces functionality and user experience in exchange for security.

"We hope other platforms would do something similar," Deibert said.

"We’ve seen the big tech platforms start to address the threats raised by the mercenary spyware industry – we definitely applaud and welcome that."

If the new setting is adopted by users, Deibert added, it would "completely reduce the possibility of getting inside and exploiting some flaw in applications or other bits of software" that make it possible for spyware such as Pegasus to infect a phone.

When an iPhone or other handset is infected with Pegasus, the user of the spyware can in effect take over that phone, accessing messages, pictures and location. The software can even turn a phone into a remote listening device.

Pegasus can infect phones running iOS or Android and can be delivered via "zero-click" attacks, which do not require any interaction with the phone’s owner to gain entry to the device. The hacking program developed and licensed to governments around the world by NSO Group, an Israeli company.

Apple does not disclose the number of its users subjected to Pegasus-style hacks, but its devices have been highly targeted in 150 countries.

[Related: Google uncovers ‘hack-for-hire groups’ operating globally]

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