November 24, 2021
US gadget giant Apple is suing Israeli smartphone spyware maker NSO Group on behalf of iPhone users it alleges had their phones hacked.
NSO has been under increasing scrutiny this year, following the publication of a bunch of stories by a media alliance calling itself Forbidden Stories, which claimed some governments were using NSO’s Pegasus software to hack the phones of selected individuals. The precise motives for such acts can only be speculated about but, suffice it to say, there’s often a fine line between national security and political expedience.
Inevitably, some of those phones allegedly hacked were iPhones, something Apple seems to be taking personally. Its legal complaint hits the ground running, stating ‘Defendants are notorious hackers—amoral 21st century mercenaries who have created highly sophisticated cyber-surveillance machinery that invites routine and flagrant abuse.’ How Apple to frame this as a moral crusade. We were aware of no public statements on this matter from NSO at time of writing.
“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 SVP 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.”
Since the US government already acted against NSO earlier this month this seems to be, at least in part, a piece of opportunistic virtue-signalling by Apple, as the self-promotion in the above canned quote infers. Safe in the knowledge that it has the support of the US state, Apple can present itself as the plucky champion of its otherwise vulnerable customers.
Having said that, Apple does seem to have added to the pool of knowledge on this matter, going on to offer new information on NSO Group’s FORCEDENTRY, an exploit for a now-patched vulnerability used to break into an Apple device and install the latest version of Pegasus. The lawsuit seeks to ban NSO even more than it already is and to get ‘redress’ for the hacking it enabled.
“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.”
More thinly-veiled self-promotion – yay. Apple says it will add $10 million to any cash it wins from the lawsuit (not clear whether that is after it has covered its costs) and donate it to groups like the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which was the first to identify the exploit used by FORCEDENTRY. We trust Apple will be no less vigilant if it ever finds the US government (or the French) is up to similar tricks.
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