Apple introduces “lockdown mode” in iOS 16 to block government spyware

Apple said Wednesday it will introduce a new “lockdown mode” option for its upcoming iPhone and Mac software, designed to protect users from mercenary spyware unleashed by government-sponsored hackers.

The tech giant said the new feature is an “extreme optional protection” for device owners who are more likely to be targeted by nation-states with powerful spyware, such as journalists, activists and human rights defenders.

“Lockdown mode” will be available on Apple’s iPhones, iPads, and Macs this fall, and turning it on will block most attachments sent to the Messages app.

The increasing use of encrypted communications over phone apps like WhatsApp and Signal has prompted governments to turn to commercial spyware vendors to gather information about targets.

In a statement, Ivan Krstić, head of security engineering and architecture at Apple Inc., said: “While the vast majority of users will never fall victim to targeted cyberattacks, we will work tirelessly to protect the small number of users that are This includes continuing to develop defenses specifically for these users, as well as supporting researchers and organizations around the world who are doing the vital work to uncover mercenary companies creating these digital attacks.”

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The protection announced Wednesday is a tacit admission that not even Apple has been able to adequately protect its products from intrusions by government-sponsored hackers and commercial spyware. Governments have used these tools to violate the privacy of journalists, political dissidents and human rights defenders.

In a statement, Apple said the “extreme, optional level of security” would only be offered to a “very small number of users who face serious, targeted threats to their digital security.”

Apple iPhone lock mode

Apple plans to introduce a “lockdown” option for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers to protect against spyware unleashed by government-sponsored hackers. (Apple Inc.)

While only a handful of countries appear to have the resources to develop their own cell phone hacking tools, private companies like Israel’s NSO Group have been selling phone hacking software to government agencies around the world for years.

The growing hacker-for-hire problem prompted Apple late last year to file a federal lawsuit against NSO Group for breaking into iPhones and other Apple products. In its complaint, Apple accused NSO Group employees of being “amoral 21st-century mercenaries”.

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Blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce, NSO has denied any wrongdoing, saying its products were used to thwart child molesters and terrorists.

The lockdown measure is considered a last resort for people under attack from spyware, as enabling lockdown disables many popular features. This includes sending attachments and links in texts, as well as being able to receive FaceTime calls from new numbers. Internet surfing is also restricted.

Google, whose Android mobile phone platform is used by iPhone competitors, has also been targeted by commercial spyware vendors. The company’s Threat Analysis Group says it tracks more than 30 such companies and regularly publishes reports of exploits used to hack phones, making them far less effective.

Google also offers an “Advanced Protection Program” that uses special security key hardware to make user accounts more difficult to hack. The company said it strongly recommends the program “to journalists, activists, business leaders and people involved in elections.”

The new feature will initially be offered as a trial so security researchers can help Apple identify any bugs or vulnerabilities.

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Separately, Apple also provided more details on a $10 million grant it pledged last November to help thwart large-scale hacking attacks. The money goes to the Dignity and Justice Fund, a philanthropic arm of the Ford Foundation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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