BOSTON — Apple released a critical software patch to fix a security vulnerability researchers said could allow hackers to infect iPhones and other Apple devices without user action directly. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said the was exploited to plant spyware on a Saudi activist’s iPhone. They said they had high confidence that the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire firm, Israel’s NSO Group, was behind that attack.
The researchers said the unknown vulnerability affected all major, Macs, and Apple Watches. The researchers said it was the first time a so-called “zero-click” exploit — not requiring to click on suspect links or open infected files — had been caught and analyzed. They found the malicious code on Sept. 7 and immediately alerted Apple. The targeted activist asked to remain anonymous, they said. NSO Group responded with a one-sentence statement saying it will continue providing tools for fighting “terror and crime.”
“We’re not necessarily attributing this attack to the Saudi government,” said researcher Bill Marczak. Although security experts say that the average iPhone, iPad, and Mac user generally need not worry — suchto specific targets — the discovery still alarmed security professionals.
Citizen Lab previously found evidence of zero-click exploits being used to hack into the phones of al-Jazeera journalists and other targets but hasn’t once seen the malicious code itself. Malicious image files were transmitted to the activist’s phone via the iMessage instant-messaging app before it was hacked with NSO’s Pegasus spyware, which opens a phone to eavesdropping and remote data theft, Marczak said. He said the malicious file causes devices to crash. It was discovered during a second examination of the phone, which forensics showed had been infected in March. Citizen Lab reveals, once again, that NSO Group is allowing its spyware to be used against ordinary civilians.
In a blog post, time it had patched a zero-click vulnerability.and iPads because a “maliciously crafted” PDF file could lead to them being hacked. It said it knew the issue might have been exploited and cited Citizen Lab. In a subsequent statement, Apple security chief Ivan Krstić commended Citizen Lab and said such exploits “are not a threat to the overwhelming majority of our users.” He noted as he has previously, that such exploits typically cost to develop and often have a short shelf life. Apple didn’t respond to questions regarding whether this was the first
Users should get alerts on their iPhones, prompting them to update their iOS software. Those who want to jump the gun can go into the phone settings, click “General”, then “Software Update,” and trigger the patch update directly. Citizen Lab called the iMessage to exploit FORCED ENTRY and said it was effective against Apple iOS, MacOS, and WatchOS devices. It urged people to install security updates immediately.
Researcher John Scott-Railton said the news highlights the importance of securing popular messaging apps against such attacks. “ are increasingly becoming a major way that nation-states and mercenary hackers are gaining phone access,” he said. “And it’s why it’s so important that companies focus on ensuring they are as locked down as possible.” The researchers said it also undermines NSO Group’s claims that it only sells its spyware to and terrorists and audits its customers to ensure it’s not abused.
“If Pegasus were only being used against criminals and terrorists, we never would have targeting some 1,400 users of the encrypted messaging service with spyware. In July, a global media consortium published a damning report on how clients of NSO Group have been spying for years on journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, and people close to them, with the hacker-for-hire group directly involved in the targeting. Amnesty International confirmed 37 successful Pegasus infections based on a leaked whose origin was not disclosed.this stuff,” said Marczak. was also allegedly targeted by an NSO zero-click exploit. In October 2019, Facebook sued NSO in U.S. federal court for allegedly
Onejournalist Jamal Khashoggi just four days after he was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The CIA attributed the murder to the Saudi government. The recent revelations also prompted an Hungary’s right-wing government used Pegasus to monitor critical journalists, lawyers, and business figures secretly. India’s parliament also erupted in protests as opposition lawmakers accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents and others.
France is also trying to get to the bottom of allegations that President Emmanuel Macron and members of his government may have been targeted in 2019 by an unidentified Moroccan security service using Pegasus. Morocco, a key French ally, and is taking legal action to counter allegations implicating the North African kingdom in the spyware scandal.