Apple Sues Israel’s NSO Group To Curb The Abuse Of State-Sponsored Spyware
Apple also announced a $10 million contribution to support cybersurveillance researchers and advocates. Apple Sues Israel’s NSO Group To Curb The Abuse Of State-Sponsored Spyware
Apple today filed a lawsuit against NSO Group and its parent company to hold it accountable for the surveillance and targeting of Apple users. The complaint provides new information on how NSO Group infected victims’ devices with its Pegasus spyware.
To prevent further abuse and harm to its users, Apple is also seeking a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using any Apple software, services, or devices.
NSO Group creates sophisticated, state-sponsored surveillance technology that allows its highly targeted spyware to surveil its victims. These attacks are only aimed at a very small number of users, and they impact people across multiple platforms, including iOS and Android.
Researchers and journalists have publicly documented a history of this spyware being abused to target journalists, activists, dissidents, academics, and government officials.
“State-sponsored actors like the NSO Group spend millions of dollars on sophisticated surveillance technologies without effective accountability. That needs to change,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering.
“Apple devices are the most secure consumer hardware on the market — but private companies developing state-sponsored spyware have become even more dangerous.
While these cybersecurity threats only impact a very small number of our customers, we take any attack on our users very seriously, and we’re constantly working to strengthen the security and privacy protections in iOS to keep all our users safe.”
NSO Group’s FORCEDENTRY Exploit
Apple’s legal complaint provides new information on NSO Group’s FORCEDENTRY, an exploit for a now-patched vulnerability previously used to break into a victim’s Apple device and install the latest version of NSO Group’s spyware product, Pegasus. The exploit was originally identified by the Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto.
The spyware was used to attack a small number of Apple users worldwide with dangerous malware and spyware. Apple’s lawsuit seeks to ban NSO Group from further harming individuals by using Apple’s products and services. The lawsuit also seeks redress for NSO Group’s flagrant violations of US federal and state law, arising out of its efforts to target and attack Apple and its users.
NSO Group and its clients devote the immense resources and capabilities of nation-states to conduct highly targeted cyberattacks, allowing them to access the microphone, camera, and other sensitive data on Apple and Android devices.
To deliver FORCEDENTRY to Apple devices, attackers created Apple IDs to send malicious data to a victim’s device — allowing NSO Group or its clients to deliver and install Pegasus spyware without a victim’s knowledge. Though misused to deliver FORCEDENTRY, Apple servers were not hacked or compromised in the attacks.
Apple makes the most secure mobile devices on the market, and constantly invests in strengthening privacy and security protections for its users. For example, researchers have found that other mobile platforms have 15 times more malware infections than iPhone,2 and a recent study showed that less than 2 percent of mobile malware targets iOS devices.
iOS 15 includes a number of new security protections, including significant upgrades to the BlastDoor security mechanism. While NSO Group spyware continues to evolve, Apple has not observed any evidence of successful remote attacks against devices running iOS 15 and later versions. Apple urges all users to update their iPhone and always use the latest software.
“At Apple, we are always working to defend our users against even the most complex cyberattacks. The steps we’re taking today will send a clear message: In a free society, it is unacceptable to weaponize powerful state-sponsored spyware against those who seek to make the world a better place,” said Ivan Krstić, head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture.
“Our threat intelligence and engineering teams work around the clock to analyze new threats, rapidly patch vulnerabilities, and develop industry-leading new protections in our software and silicon. Apple runs one of the most sophisticated security engineering operations in the world, and we will continue to work tirelessly to protect our users from abusive state-sponsored actors like NSO Group.”
Apple’s Continuing Efforts To Protect Its Users
Apple commends groups like the Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech for their groundbreaking work to identify cybersurveillance abuses and help protect victims.
To further strengthen efforts like these, Apple will be contributing $10 million, as well as any damages from the lawsuit, to organizations pursuing cybersurveillance research and advocacy.
Apple will also support the accomplished researchers at the Citizen Lab with pro-bono technical, threat intelligence, and engineering assistance to aid their independent research mission, and where appropriate, will offer the same assistance to other organizations doing critical work in this space.
“Mercenary spyware firms like NSO Group have facilitated some of the world’s worst human rights abuses and acts of transnational repression, while enriching themselves and their investors,” said Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. “I applaud Apple for holding them accountable for their abuses, and hope in doing so Apple will help to bring justice to all who have been victimized by NSO Group’s reckless behavior.”
Apple is notifying the small number of users that it discovered may have been targeted by FORCEDENTRY. Any time Apple discovers activity consistent with a state-sponsored spyware attack, Apple will notify the affected users in accordance with industry best practices.
Apple believes privacy is a fundamental human right, and security is a constant focus for teams across the company. For years, Apple has led the industry with new protections to disrupt sophisticated attacks and defend its users, including features such as pointer authentication codes (PAC), BlastDoor, and the Page Protection Layer (PPL). For more information about Apple’s platform security, visit support.apple.com/guide/security/welcome/web.
Apple Notified State Department Employees of Phone Hacking Linked To NSO Group Software
Foreign service officers in Uganda among those informed their iPhones were compromised in attack.
Apple Inc. last week notified 11 U.S. State Department employees in Uganda that their iPhones were hacked, and investigators have linked the attack to a tool developed by NSO Group, an Israeli technology company that was blacklisted by the Biden administration, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Some of the targeted State Department employees were foreign service officers who are U.S. citizens, while others appear to be locals working for the embassy, the person familiar with the matter said. The hacked phones were linked to State Department email addresses, the person said.
The alerts appear to be the first confirmed cases of NSO Group’s mobile hacking tool, known as Pegasus, being used to successfully target American officials.
The Biden administration last month placed NSO Group on an export prohibition list that restricts the firm from obtaining some types of technology from the U.S.
That came after a recent series of articles published by a global consortium of journalism organizations alleged that Pegasus, one of NSO Group’s main software intrusion tools, has been used by dozens of law-enforcement and intelligence customers around the world to target and break into cellphones belonging to politicians, human-rights activists and journalists.
“Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations,” NSO Group said in a statement. “To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case.”
NSO Group didn’t identify the customer or customers whose access to its tools were terminated and said it would cooperate with any relevant government authorities investigating the matter. Apple has a policy of notifying users it suspects have been targeted by state-sponsored attackers.
Those notifications don’t include who was behind the effort. Reuters first reported that at least nine State Department employees had been hacked by an unknown NSO Group customer.
The State Department declined to confirm the specific allegations, but said it closely monitors the cybersecurity conditions of its workers.
Apple last week sued NSO Group, alleging the company had engaged in “concerted efforts in 2021 to target and attack Apple customers, Apple products and servers and Apple through dangerous malware and spyware.”
The suit seeks to bar NSO Group from using Apple’s products. It follows a similar lawsuit that the WhatsApp messaging service brought in 2019 alleging NSO Group had sent malware to 1,400 of its users. WhatsApp is owned by Meta Platforms Inc., formerly known as Facebook Inc.
NSO Group has said its technology has been used to save lives around the globe by helping law enforcement and intelligence agencies in countries that respect privacy and the rule of law to pursue terrorists and other criminals. The company has also said it has terminated contracts with governments that have abused its software and taken steps to prevent abuse.
But that has not appeased the company’s critics, who have for years accused NSO Group of being one of the most prominent vendors in an expanding commercial marketplace for hacking tools.
While some governments often develop their own hacking tools at intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency, others have increasingly sought to purchase digital surveillance tools from companies that specialize in building and selling them.
“Companies that enable their customers to hack U.S. government employees are a threat to America’s national security and should be treated as such by the government,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who has advocated for a crackdown on hacking tool vendors like NSO Group, said Friday in response to news of the State Department notifications.
NSO Group has said that there are certain restrictions on the use of its tools, including that they are blocked from working on U.S. phone numbers. In its statement Friday, the firm acknowledged that “once the software is sold to the licensed customer, NSO has no way to know who the targets of the customers are, as such, we were not and could not have been aware of this case.”
Pegasus spyware allows pervasive surveillance once a phone is compromised, essentially creating a silent spying device that can access a phone’s files and messages as well as its microphone and camera. To install it, the NSO Group has developed a number of sophisticated techniques, including one “zero-click” method discovered earlier this year that could infect an iPhone without requiring the owner to click a link or open a file, according to researchers who have studied the software.
NSO Spyware Linked To Phone Hacks of Journalists, Activists In El Salvador
Dozens of phones compromised in effort to control free press, rights groups say.
Human rights groups say they have identified 35 journalists and activists in El Salvador whose mobile phones were infected with spyware manufactured by the Israeli company NSO Group.
In a statement released on Wednesday, rights groups Access Now, Amnesty International and Citizen Lab said that the people targeted included employees of media groups El Faro and Gato Encerrado, in addition to employees of regional human rights and pro-democracy organizations, such as Cristosal and Fundación Democracia, Transparencia y Justicia.
A spokesperson for NSO group declined to comment on the specific allegations but said that the company provides its technology “only to vetted and legitimate intelligence agencies as well as to law enforcement agencies, who use these systems under warrants by the local judicial system to fight criminals, terrorists and corruption.”
“NSO’s firm stance on these issues is that the use of cyber tools in order to monitor dissidents, activists and journalists is a severe misuse of any technology and goes against the desired use of such critical tools,” the spokesperson added.
Governments and law enforcement agencies use NSO’s flagship technology, known as Pegasus, to hack into people’s mobile phones and covertly record emails, phone calls and text messages. NSO has argued that its technology is a valuable tool to track down terrorists and other serious criminals.
But security researchers and human rights groups have previously alleged that the company’s spyware has often been misused to target dissidents and government critics from countries including Rwanda, Togo, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Morocco and India.
NSO has come under increasing pressure in recent months after a string of media reports linking its technology to alleged abuses. In November, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted NSO Group, accusing it of supplying spyware to governments that had used the technology to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers.
NSO has since explored options that have included shutting down its Pegasus unit and selling the entire company, Bloomberg News reported.
In the case of El Salvador, it isn’t known who was behind the effort to hack the phones of journalists and activists. According to Access Now, many of the people who were targeted work with organizations that have faced persecution from El Salvador’s government.
A spokeswoman for El Salvador’s government didn’t respond to requests for comment. A person familiar with NSO’s operations said that the company didn’t currently have an “active system” in El Salvador though indicated there had been one there in the past.
The people whose phones were infected with spyware were targeted between July 2020 and November 2021, the researchers found. In one case, a journalist’s phone was infected on more than 40 separate occasions, which represents “one of the most persistent and intensive” examples ever discovered of the spyware’s use against a journalist, the rights groups said in a joint statement.
“Infecting people’s devices with Pegasus spyware is a very serious violation of their rights,” said Gaspar Pisanu, Latin America policy manager at Access Now. “This is a clear attempt to suppress and control the free press in El Salvador. No government, no corporation has the right to do that.”
Access Now, Amnesty International and a dozen other rights groups are calling for governments to implement a moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology such as NSO’s Pegasus. They are also asking the United Nations to investigate alleged human rights violations enabled by Pegasus spyware.
“The lack of accountability for such egregious conduct by public authorities and private companies allows the surveillance culture to flourish and destroy human rights,” the groups said in a statement.
Israel Pushes Back on Alleged Illicit Police Use of NSO Spyware
* Claim Of Unauthorized Use Deserves Investigation: Minister
* Police Deny Claims, Signs Of Misuse Not Yet Discovered
Israeli officials pushed back against a media report that police illicitly used controversial spyware developed by NSO Group to monitor critics of Benjamin Netanyahu and other citizens, as the state watchdog prepared to launch an investigation.
Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, whose office oversees the police, told Army Radio on Wednesday there might have been “an exception where someone decided to use the software on his own accord without approval,” but nothing like that had so far been found.
“The claims against the police, at least those that the police were able to decipher from the article, were for the most part erroneous,” he added, specifically denying that protesters’ phones were hacked.
Calcalist, a business newspaper, reported Tuesday that police used NSO’s Pegasus surveillance software without court warrants to hack into the phones of demonstrators who had been involved in more than a year of protests against then-Prime Minister Netanyahu. Other citizens allegedly had their phones hacked as police attempted to shore up investigations into crimes.
On Wednesday, the newspaper said police also used civilian hackers to help in certain cases.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said there was no immediate evidence such surveillance took place without court warrants, but that the allegations merited investigation.
“The gap between the claims made by the Calcalist newspaper and the police statements are impossible to bridge,” Sa’ar said in a parliamentary meeting. “What we know now is that nothing was done without a warrant, but the state comptroller is carrying out an investigation as an independent official. It is good the allegations will be checked out and the conclusions made public knowledge.”
He said the attorney general’s office, which operates under his ministry, would also be looking into the report.
Israel Police said in an emailed statement that no action was taken without judicial authorization. NSO said it sold its Pegasus spyware under a license to national security forces and had no control over how it was used.
NSO has been embroiled in numerous scandals surrounding its Pegasus phone-hacking tool in recent months, over allegations the software has been used by governments to spy on political dissidents, human-rights activists and journalists. The U.S. has blacklisted NSO for allegedly targeting such groups, and the surveillance software has also reportedly been used to hack U.S. State Department phones.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said all the claims that have surfaced around the use of NSO technology have made it clear that many countries, even democracies, have not used spyware strictly for its declared purpose, to stop crime and terrorism.
“That is the main lesson, that once a democracy has this kind of a tool it is very difficult to block them from using it for forbidden purposes,” she said.
Uproar In Israel Over Police Snooping Renews Privacy Debate
Authorities launch an investigation, consider legislative changes to modernize Israel’s cyber laws.
For years, governments around the world used Israeli company NSO Group’s software to spy on journalists, activists and dissidents, prompting the U.S. to blacklist it. Now, a firestorm has erupted here over whether the company’s tools were used to illegally monitor Israelis.
Israel’s police say they use a variety of spyware tools, including one developed by NSO, known for its Pegasus software, which can infect and completely take over a smartphone without the target being aware. The police haven’t said how similar spyware that has been tailored for their use is to Pegasus, only that Israeli law allows them limited access.
They say spyware is crucial for tracking criminal activity amid a rise in the use of encrypted software in phone apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal.
The clarification has done little to quell uproar in Israel after local business newspaper Calcalist reported that Israeli police used NSO software without the necessary permissions to spy on Israelis, including members of a domestic protest movement against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and three mayors suspected of corruption.
In at least one case, the police used evidence gathered using the NSO software to get judicial permission retroactively, according to the reports, which didn’t disclose the source of the information.
The police have denied wrongdoing, saying they investigated the allegations and found that the correct procedures were followed.
But many Israelis have taken to social media to demand accountability. The issue has even united Israeli lawmakers of different political and religious stripes, who have warned that the alleged unauthorized use of spyware tools could undermine the country’s democratic foundations and erode public trust in law enforcement.
“Israelis’ feelings…changed when the software started being used against them,” said Moshe Raz, a member of liberal party Meretz, adding that there would likely be a hearing about the allegations in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. “What we want to understand is whether there was a violation of privacy and of basic human rights.”
The country’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has launched an investigation into the alleged misuse. The public-security ministry said it is exploring new changes needed to the country’s legislature to bring old wiretapping laws in line with 21st-century cyber capabilities.
NSO says its software is meant to help law enforcement save lives and stop crime, and that it terminates contracts with clients that misuse the platform.
On Tuesday, NSO Chairman Asher Levy resigned but said the move was unrelated to the outrage.
The controversy plays into a global human-rights debate over the extent to which authorities can use invasive technology against civilians in the name of security.
Human-rights activists have criticized NSO’s surveillance technology, saying authoritarian governments use it to target their critics. The U.S. blacklisted the company in November.
Human Rights Watch in a statement Wednesday said the phones of its Beirut office director, Lama Fakih—who had worked in Syria, Israel, Gaza and Myanmar—had been infected with the Pegasus spyware.
Until now, Israelis had only heard allegations that the Pegasus software was being abused by some leaders in other countries to spy on journalists and members of the opposition, or against Palestinian activists in the West Bank.
“When it was against Palestinians, very few people protested, they said it was about preventing terror,” said Meretz’s Mr. Raz. “But it’s different when it’s used against Israeli citizens.”
Israel Launches Investigation Into Ballooning Spyware Scandal
Inquiry adds a new dimension to a political firestorm over Israelis being targeted by homegrown spyware that infects smartphones.
Israeli authorities launched a state inquiry on Monday into allegations that the country’s police illicitly used spyware to hack the phones of political activists, senior government bureaucrats and people close to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The national investigation, led by the public security minister who oversees the police, adds a new dimension to a political firestorm here over Israelis being targeted by homegrown spyware that infects smartphones.
The investigation followed a report in Israeli newspaper Calcalist that police unlawfully targeted one of Mr. Netanyahu’s sons and two of his top communication aides, along with mayors, ministry officials and a leading businessman. The uproar began in January with reports that police used spyware against political opponents of Mr. Netanyahu.
On Monday, the allegations prompted calls for a thorough investigation from across Israel’s political spectrum and from Israel’s own national police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, who took office in January 2021, after the period of alleged wrongdoing.
“We cannot lose our democracy. We cannot lose our police. And surely, we cannot lose the faith of our public in them. This requires an in-depth and thorough investigation,” said Israel’s President Isaac Herzog.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the allegations “very serious.” He said spyware is an important tool in fighting terrorism and major crime but wasn’t intended for use in “phishing campaigns targeting the Israeli public or officials—which is why we need to understand exactly what happened.”
The allegations threatened to upend Mr. Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges, with his defense lawyers demanding in court on Monday a delay in the proceeding until it is determined whether evidence against him was obtained illegally.
The judges suspended a hearing scheduled for Tuesday and asked the prosecution to submit a response to spying allegations by Tuesday afternoon, after which the court will determine whether the hearings will continue on Wednesday.
Prosecutors say Mr. Netanyahu accepted expensive gifts from wealthy businessmen in exchange for official favors and offered two media executives regulatory and financial benefits in exchange for positive press coverage. Mr. Netanyahu has denied the charges, calling the investigation a witch hunt that was designed to bring down his government. His trial began in May 2020 and is expected to last for many more months if not years.
Prosecutors are working to determine whether one of their key witnesses slated to take the stand soon was pressed to flip against Mr. Netanyahu by investigators using evidence illegally obtained. They are also investigating whether other individuals connected to the investigations were illicitly spied on by the police.
At the heart of the allegations is whether the police used spyware without proper judicial oversight and against individuals not suspected of any major wrongdoing. Israeli police have backed off their initial denials of wrongdoing.
Israel’s police say they use a variety of spyware tools, including one developed by Israel’s NSO Group, known for its Pegasus software, which can completely take over a smartphone without the target knowing. The police haven’t said how similar their spyware is to Pegasus, only that Israeli law allows them limited access.
The police say spyware is crucial for tracking criminal activity amid a rise in the use of encrypted software in phone apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal. NSO says its software is meant to help law enforcement save lives and stop crime, and that it terminates contracts with clients that misuse the platform.
Some privacy advocates have said the use of spyware in Israel is illegal. They say the current laws were designed to allow law-enforcement officials to listen to conversations, and not to take control of smartphones and gain unfettered access to a person’s data.
Israel Sees No Evidence of Alleged Police Abuse of NSO’s Pegasus
Israel said it found no evidence that police illicitly targeted civilians with spyware developed by NSO Group, contradicting a series of local reports that alleged widespread abuse of the notorious Pegasus tool including against prominent officials and business leaders.
The committee that made the findings was headed by Israel’s deputy attorney general. It used data from NSO and was aided by experts from the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, and the Shin Bet, it’s internal security service, according to a Justice Ministry statement.
“There are no indications that the police used the Pegasus software, without a court order, against any of the people cited in the media,” the ministry wrote late Monday.
Calcalist, a Hebrew business daily, had reported over the past few weeks that law enforcement officials used Pegasus without a court order to tap into the phones of citizens ranging from a key prosecution witness in former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, the former Israeli leader’s son, high-ranking government officials, and the heads of some of the country’s biggest companies.
It was the latest scandal linked to the embattled Israeli firm, which has been under scrutiny for years, but the first in its home country. Pegasus, which can be remotely installed in smartphones to extract even encrypted communications, has been allegedly used to target journalists, dissidents and human rights activists by foreign governments including Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
NSO is privately owned and operated, but the licensing of its software to foreign governments has to be approved by Israel’s Defense Ministry.
Apple Announces New Lockdown Mode On iOS 16 With ‘Extreme’ Level of Security
Apple today announced a new Lockdown Mode coming to the iPhone, iPad, and Mac with iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura. Apple says the optional security feature is designed to protect the “very small number” of users who may be at risk of “highly targeted cyberattacks” from private companies developing state-sponsored spyware, such as journalists, activists, and government employees.
Apple says Lockdown Mode is enabled in the third beta versions of iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura released today, and the feature will be available to all users when the software updates are released later this year. While the feature is aimed at users who are targets of cyberattacks, it appears that it can be enabled by any user.
Lockdown Mode is turned off by default and can be enabled in the Privacy & Security section of the Settings or System Settings app. After being turned on, Lockdown Mode can be turned off at any time in the same section of the Settings app. Enabling or disabling Lockdown Mode requires restarting the device and entering the device’s passcode.
When enabled, Apple says Lockdown Mode provides an “extreme” level of security by strictly limiting or disabling the functionality of features, apps, and websites. At launch, Lockdown Mode will include the following protections:
- In the Messages app, most message attachment types other than images are blocked, and some features like link previews are unavailable.
- Incoming FaceTime calls from people you have not previously called are blocked. Incoming invitations for other Apple services from people you have not previously invited are also blocked.
- Shared albums will be removed from the Photos app, and new shared album invitations will be blocked.
- When a device is locked, wired connections with other devices/accessories are blocked.
- Configuration profiles cannot be installed, and the device cannot enroll into mobile device management (MDM), while Lockdown Mode is turned on.
Apple said it will continue to add new protections to Lockdown Mode over time. Apple has added a new category to its Security Bounty program to reward researchers who find Lockdown Mode bypasses and help improve its protections, with bounties to be doubled for qualifying findings in Lockdown Mode, up to a maximum of $2 million.
“Lockdown Mode is a groundbreaking capability that reflects our unwavering commitment to protecting users from even the rarest, most sophisticated attacks,” said Ivan Krstić, Apple’s head of security engineering, in a press release shared today. “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.”
Apple also announced it is making a $10 million grant to the Ford Foundation’s Dignity and Justice Fund to support organizations that investigate, expose, and prevent highly targeted cyberattacks. Apple said it will also be donating any damages awarded from its lawsuit filed against NSO Group, creator of the spyware Pegasus.
Last year, Apple began notifying users who may have been targeted by state-sponsored attackers via email and iMessage notifications.