Apple said Wednesday it will roll out a new “Lockdown Mode” option to its upcoming iPhone and Mac software intended to protect users against mercenary spyware unleashed by state-sponsored hackers.
The technology giant said the new feature is an “extreme optional protection” for device owners who are more likely to be targeted by nation states using powerful spyware, like journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
“Lockdown Mode” will come to Apple’s iPhones, iPads and Macs this fall and turning it on will block most attachments sent to the Messages app.
The growing use of encrypted communications through phone apps like WhatsApp and Signal have prompted governments to turn to commercial spyware vendors to gather information on targets.
In a statement, Ivan Krstić, head of security engineering and architecture at Apple Inc., said, “While the vast majority of users will never be the victims of highly targeted cyberattacks, we will work tirelessly to protect the small number of users who are. That includes continuing to design defenses specifically for these users, as well as supporting researchers and organizations around the world doing critically important work in exposing mercenary companies that create these digital attacks.”
The safeguard announced Wednesday is a tacit acknowledgement that not even Apple has been able to adequately shield its products against intrusions from state-backed hackers and commercial spyware. Governments have used these tools to violate the privacy of journalists, political dissidents and human rights activists.
In a statement, Apple said the “extreme, optional level of security” would only be offered to a “very small number of users who face grave, targeted threats to their digital security.”
While only a handful of countries appear to have the resources to develop in-house mobile 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 to file a federal lawsuit late last year 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 who have created highly sophisticated cyber-surveillance machinery that invites routine and flagrant abuse.”
NSO, which has been blacklisted by the U.S. Commerce Department, has denied any wrongdoing and said its products have been used to thwart child abusers and terrorists.
The lockdown measure is considered a last resort for people targeted by spyware, since activating lockdown will disable many popular features. That includes sending attachments and links in texts, as well as the ability to receive FaceTime calls from new numbers. Web browsing will also be limited.
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’s tracking more than 30 such companies and routinely publishes reports on exploits used to hack into phones, making them far less effective.
Google also offers an “Advanced Protection Program” that uses a special security key hardware to make user accounts harder to hack. The company said it strongly recommends the program for “journalists, activists, business executives, and people involved in elections.”
The new feature will initially be offered as a test version so that security researchers can help Apple identify any bugs or weaknesses.
Separately, Apple also provided more details about a $10 million grant it pledged last November to help counter large-scale hacking attacks. The money will go to the Dignity and Justice Fund, a philanthropic arm of the Ford Foundation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.