Apple Security Update Closes Spyware Flaw in iPhones, Macs and iWatches

Apple Security Update Closes Spyware Flaw in iPhones, Macs and iWatches

On Monday, Apple issued emergency software updates for a critical vulnerability in its products, following the discovery of a flaw that allows highly invasive spyware from Israel’s NSO Group to infect anyone’s iPhone, Apple Watch, or Mac computer without the need for a single click.

Since Tuesday, Apple’s security team has been working around the clock to develop a fix after researchers at Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity watchdog organization based at the University of Toronto, discovered that a Saudi activist’s iPhone had been infected with NSO Group spyware.

The spyware, known as Pegasus, used a novel method to infiltrate an Apple device invisibly for up to six months without the victim’s knowledge. The Holy Grail of surveillance is a “zero click remote exploit,” which allows governments, mercenaries, and criminals to secretly break into a victim’s device without alerting the victim.

Using the zero-click infection method, Pegasus can activate a user’s camera and microphone, record messages, texts, emails, and phone calls — even those sent via encrypted messaging and phone apps like Signal — and send them back to NSO’s clients in governments all over the world.

“This spyware can do everything an iPhone user can do on their device and more,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab who collaborated on the discovery with Bill Marczak, a senior research fellow at Citizen Lab.

Previously, victims only discovered their devices were infected with spyware after receiving a suspicious link texted to their phone or email. However, NSO Group’s zero-click capability does not prompt the victim and allows full access to a person’s digital life. On the black market for hacking tools, these abilities can fetch millions of dollars.

An Apple spokesman confirmed Citizen Lab’s findings and stated that the company planned to include spyware protection in its next iOS 15 software update, which is expected this year.

On Monday, NSO Group did not immediately respond to inquiries.

NSO Group has long been a source of contention. According to the company, it only sells its spyware to governments that adhere to strict human rights standards. However, its Pegasus spyware has been found on the phones of activists, dissidents, lawyers, doctors, nutritionists, and even children in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico over the last six years.

In July, Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog, and Forbidden Stories, a free speech advocacy group, collaborated with a consortium of media organizations on “The Pegasus Project” to publish a list they claimed contained 50,000 people — including hundreds of journalists, government leaders, dissidents, and activists.

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The consortium did not explain how it obtained the list, and it was unclear whether the list was merely aspirational or if the individuals were actually targeted with NSO spyware.

Azam Ahmed, a former New York Times Mexico City bureau chief who has reported extensively on corruption, violence, and surveillance in Latin America, including on NSO; and Ben Hubbard, The Times’ Beirut bureau chief who has investigated rights abuses and corruption in Saudi Arabia and wrote a recent biography of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were among those named.

Shalev Hulio, a co-founder of NSO Group, vehemently denied the accuracy of the list, telling The Times, “This is like opening up the white pages, picking 50,000 numbers, and drawing some conclusion from it.”

Previously, NSO’s clients infected their targets through text messages that enticed victims to click on a link. Journalists were able to investigate the possible presence of NSO spyware thanks to these links. However, the new zero-click method makes it much more difficult for journalists and cybersecurity researchers to detect spyware.

“The commercial spyware industry is getting darker,” said Mr. Marczak, a Citizen Lab researcher who assisted in the discovery of the exploit on a Saudi activist’s phone.

Mr. Scott-Railton urged Apple customers to update their software.

“Do you have any Apple products?” “I’m going to update it today,” he said.

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Apple Security Update Closes Spyware Flaw in iPhones, Macs and iWatches