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Apple denies Russia’s claim that thousands of iPhones were used for US espionage

Published Jun 2nd, 2023 7:56AM EDT
iOS 16 will bring Lockdown Mode to iPhone.
Image: Apple

Russia’s Federal Security Service claimed it discovered the US was spying on the country by hacking thousands of iPhones, which were compromised with “sophisticated surveillance software.”

In addition, Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab said dozens of its employee’s devices were compromised in the operation, according to Reuters. The FSB said it has “uncovered an intelligence action of the American special services using Apple mobile devices.”

The allegation claims Apple and the National Security Agency have had “close cooperation” to invade those iPhones, although neither FSB nor Kaspersky provided evidence of this spying campaign.

To Reuters, Apple denied the allegation: “We have never worked with any government to insert a backdoor into any Apple product and never will.”

In a blog post, Kaspersky Lab’s CEO explained how his team was attacked by spyware. He said this virus can infect iPhones without any action from the user. First, the iPhone user receives an invisible iMessage with a malicious attachment that contains the exploit. That message then triggers a vulnerability that leads to code execution, regardless of whether or not the user interacts with the message. While he can’t say Apple did something on purpose, Kaspersky believes the company’s iOS “black box” is the perfect place for spyware to attack and never be discovered.

Should I be worried about espionage?

Although the iPhone is not virus-proof, Apple always fixes vulnerabilities with the latest operating system updates. Not only getting the newest phone can help, but having your iPhone updated to the latest version avoids having vulnerabilities explored.

That said, over the past year, Apple has added security measures for government officials, journalists, and other people that could be spyware targets to protect themselves. One of them is the Lockdown Mode. Here’s what it does:

  • Messages: Most message attachment types other than images are blocked. Some features, like link previews, are disabled.
  • Web browsing: Certain complex web technologies, like just-in-time (JIT) JavaScript compilation, are disabled unless the user excludes a trusted site from Lockdown Mode.
  • Apple services: Incoming invitations and service requests, including FaceTime calls, are blocked if the user has not previously sent the initiator a call or request.
  • Wired connections with a computer or accessory are blocked when iPhone is locked.
  • Configuration profiles cannot be installed, and the device cannot enroll in mobile device management (MDM) while Lockdown Mode is turned on.

That said, keep your iPhone updated – and avoid having national security information.

José Adorno Tech News Reporter

José is a Tech News Reporter at BGR. He has previously covered Apple and iPhone news for 9to5Mac, and was a producer and web editor for Latin America broadcaster TV Globo. He is based out of Brazil.