Apple has a longstanding reputation for prioritizing security. Among others, Apple’s closed app system and refusal to release iPhone data to authorities are testament to their commitment. Now, Apple is tightening the ranks even further with a new privacy feature called “Lockdown Mode”. This heavy-duty feature is aimed at activists, journalists, and other people who may be targets of state-sponsored spyware, but anyone can use it. Essentially, Apple’s Lockdown Mode secures a phone against popular methods used for highly sophisticated attacks. Apple’s goal is to ward off specialized attacks by disabling and limiting various features that are popular in highly targeted attacks. The company is rolling out this new feature for iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura.
Lockdown Mode Battens Down the Hatches
Apple refers to Lockdown Mode as “an extreme, optional protection”, and given how hard it locks down the iPhone — extreme is a good description. Here are all of the changes Lockdown Mode implements if you enable it:
Blocks most message attachments, excluding images.
Disables some messaging features, like link previews.
Blocks incoming invitations and service requests like FaceTime unless you’ve previously called that number or sent that person a request.
Prevents data transfer on wired computer connections if the iPhone is locked.
Prevents the device from enrolling into mobile device management (MDM) and from installing new configuration profiles.
These changes clearly aren’t aimed at the average iPhone user, since Lockdown Mode will hamper a lot of features and make the iPhone less user-friendly. Instead, it will be incredibly useful to people who want to avoid state-sponsored spyware like the NSO Group’s Pegasus software. Security researchers recently discovered that iPhones targeted by Pegasus are compromised in a “zero-click” maneuver using a GIF to exploit iMessage in the background.
The changes listed above are what will be implemented when Lockdown Mode launches, and Apple will likely expand it in the future. The company is also adding a new category to its Apple Security Bounty program to encourage security researchers to find flaws and help improve the feature. Apple will reward researchers who uncover Lockdown Mode bypasses with up to $2,000,000 for qualifying findings. According to the company, that’s the highest maximum bounty payout currently available in the industry.
Apple Also Funds a Foundation for Organizations That Fight Targeted Spyware
Everyone has a right to privacy, and Apple CEO Tim Cook even believes that the loss of digital privacy negatively affects people’s behavior. Yet, to some people, privacy is more than a right — it’s the difference between life and death.Basic digital privacy tips, like using unique passwords for accounts, enabling 2FA, using a VPN, and avoiding phishing attempts are enough for most people. For people in high-ranking or dangerous positions, regular protective measures aren’t enough. Governments around the world are funding companies that create mercenary spyware targeted at insurgents, activists, politicians, journalists, military personnel, and people who work at intelligence agencies. Apple says it’s adding any damages it got from its lawsuit against the NSO Group to a $10 million grant to support security research organizations. The company specifically made the grant available to the Dignity and Justice Fund, to “support organizations that investigate, expose, and prevent highly targeted cyberattacks, including those created by private companies developing state-sponsored mercenary spyware.”The fund is run by the Ford Foundation, and said the following in response to Apple’s donation:
Apple’s blog post provides more information about the The Dignity and Justice Fund. It also describes how the organization will use Apple’s funds to help expose mercenary spyware and protect potential targets.
Spyware Attacks are Getting More Sophisticated
Even though it seems like an extreme measure, this move by Apple isn’t unwarranted. Every type of cyber attack has increased in complexity and number the last few years, but state-backed spyware is on a whole new level. These aggressive programs target specific people with unprecedented levels of invasive software and they are extremely hard to detect. That doesn’t mean consumer-grade spyware isn’t a massive problem either. Earlier in 2022, TechCrunch exposed a fleet of spyware used by average people to spy on others. Also known as stalkerware, this type of spyware is much more prevalent than state-sponsored spyware, but no less dangerous. It’s also more widely used and affects the average person.You may believe you’re safe because you have nothing to hide, but anyone can become a target for a variety of reasons. If you suspect your device may be infected, or if you’re even just curious, learn how to find and remove spyware on your phone. You can also install CyberGhost VPN on up to 7 devices simultaneously to prevent governments and cybercriminals from spying on your connection. If you’re an activist or journalist, our activist’s guide to online privacy and safety may also be helpful to you.
Author Arline Groenewald
Arline has written about technology, VPNs, cybersecurity, fintech, and various other topics in the past. Outside of work, she's an avid aerialist and has a deep love for books and stories in all formats.