Apple introduces 'Lockdown Mode' iPhone feature to block elite spyware

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The new feature aims to counter the rise of advanced hacking software that is sometimes used by governments to spy on a person’s device.

Apple introduced a new security option on Wednesday that limits some features on its devices, a move meant to lessen the chances that users can be hacked by sophisticated spyware.

Called “Lockdown Mode,” the new feature aims to counter the rise of advanced hacking software that is sometimes used by governments to take over a person’s device. Such software often lets governments read text messages and emails on a smartphone or even force it to eavesdrop on its surroundings.

As iPhones generally receive positive reviews from cybersecurity experts, they’re widely used by politicians, activists and other high-profile figures who fear they might be targets of hackers who want to spy on them. That has led to a cottage industry of mercenary spyware companies that find or pay for vulnerabilities in Apple’s iOS smartphone software, then charge governments for the ability to hack almost anyone’s phone.

Lockdown Mode limits a number of features that spyware groups have exploited in the past to gain a foothold in users’ iPhones, such as accepting FaceTime calls from unknown users or automatically loading preview links from people who send them a message.

Apple bills the features as “an extreme, optional protection that should only be used if you believe you may be personally targeted by a highly sophisticated cyberattack.”

It also will block iPhones from interacting with devices manually connected to it. That eliminates the primary way that many police departments hook up a suspect’s iPhone to a digital forensics tool to search for evidence.

Forensics tools are some of the most common ways that police have found digital evidence in abortion-related cases. The new feature could potentially be used to protect those who seek abortions in states where it's illegal, said Emma Weil, a policy analyst at Upturn, a nonprofit group aimed at using technology for social justice.

“If successfully deployed, it could make it more costly for police to get into a phone, potentially keeping incriminating digital evidence away from police,” Weil said.

The most well-known developer of such spyware, Israel’s NSO Group, has been implicated in a number of scandals in recent years. 

The company says it doesn’t actively hack people and instead licenses its software to governments. NSO’s flagship program, Pegasus, has allegedly been used to hack phones belonging to a number of high-profile political figures around the world, including the wife of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the prime minister of Spain, and a witness in a corruption trial of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as dozens of journalists and aid workers.

As Pegasus was primarily used to hack iPhones, Apple sued NSO last fall, claiming it harms Apple and its users. That suit is ongoing.

“Digital security in this context is about harm reduction,” Weil said. “It’s a balance between making it as difficult as possible for prosecutors to create a convincing case, while not forcing individuals to spend unreasonable amounts of time trying to cover every digital trace of their lives.