Apple Sues 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 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.