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Apple: How the tech giant wants to protect users from state trojans


NSO's Pegasus surveillance software has also taken Apple by surprise. An "extreme" mode in the upcoming operating system should stop such attacks in the future. But are iPhones only expensive doorstops?

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The NSO Group has developed extremely sophisticated attacks on iPhones


Apple spreads little more than the claim that its devices are safe from hackers.

Experts have never fundamentally contradicted this either, iPhones and Macs are actually considered to be relatively well protected as long as you compare »out of the box«.

But they are not invulnerable.

Determined, well-equipped attackers can always find and exploit vulnerabilities in Apple's software.

Apple now wants to put a special lockdown mode in their way, which significantly reduces the attack surface of Apple devices.

In particular, the Israeli NSO Group has repeatedly had success in compromising smartphones in the past.

Pegasus surveillance software developed by the company has repeatedly defeated the security measures in the iPhone over the years.

An earlier version still required victims to click, while a later version gave them no chance at all.

If your iPhone was switched on, it could be compromised and subsequently fully spied on.

(Read a detailed description of the attack here.)

Even if NSO always claims – as most recently in a hearing of the EU Parliament in June – that its software is only sold to state customers who need it to fight crime and terrorism, Pegasus was repeatedly found on the phones of opposition figures, dissidents and journalists.

In the eternal race between defensive and offensive, Apple has now announced another step to better protect these particularly vulnerable people: the lockdown mode for iOS 16, iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura.

It should already be included in the upcoming beta versions of the three operating systems, and will then be available to all users from autumn.

With direct reference to NSO, the company speaks of an “extreme, optional level of security for the few users who are exposed to some of the most sophisticated digital threats because of what they do or who they are”.

Ivan Krstić, who heads the Security Engineering and Architecture department at Apple, calls the new mode "groundbreaking" for "protecting users from even the rarest, most sophisticated attacks".

While the vast majority never fall prey to such a thing, Apple "works tirelessly to protect the few that do."

The price they pay for it is significant - not in euros or dollars, but in terms of convenience.

The lockdown mode can be activated in the settings with just a few clicks.

But once it is active, the device no longer works as usual.

According to Apple, the limitations include first

  • that except for photos, almost all attachments are blocked in the Messages app and link previews are no longer displayed,

  • that certain web technologies are disabled, which could slow down the access to some websites, unless they are specifically enabled by the user,

  • that incoming FaceTime calls are blocked if users have not previously sent the caller an invitation,

  • that cable connections to computers or other devices are lost once the iPhone is locked,

  • that IT departments cannot manage the devices as usual.

Further measures will follow over time.

The current list reveals past and potential attack vectors on modern hardware and software: file attachments that are not what they appear to be, automatic background functions when browsing the web, the protocols behind individual apps.

A device does not become unusable in lockdown mode.

But it is so impractical that Apple does not want to activate these settings in principle.

Apple promises a reward of up to $2 million

As far as effectiveness is concerned, the company is self-confident and yet cautious: According to Apple’s assessment, the lockdown mode would have stopped all state Trojan attacks known to date.

On the other hand, there are no guarantees in the area of ​​security, attackers are always looking for new ways.

That's why Apple promises particularly high rewards (bug bounty) if someone finds vulnerabilities in lockdown mode and reports: The company wants to pay up to two million dollars for them.

Source: spiegel

All tech articles on 2022-07-06

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