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Apple slaps hard against ‘mercenary’ surveillance-as-a-service industry

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Apple has struck a big blow against the mercenary “surveillance-as-a-service” industry, introducing a new, highly secure Lockdown Mode to protect individuals at the greatest risk of targeted attacks. The company is also offering millions of dollars to support research to expose such threats.

Starting in iOS 16, iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura, and available now in the latest developer-only betas, Lockdown Mode hardens security defenses and limits the functionalities sometimes abused by state-sponsored surveillance hackers. Apple describes this protection as “sharply reducing the attack surface that potentially could be exploited by highly targeted mercenary spyware.”

In recent years, a series of targeted spyware attacks against journalists, activists, and others have been exposed. Names including Pegasus, DevilsTongue, Predator, Hermit, and NSO Group have undermined trust in digital devices and exposed the risk of semi-private entities and the threat they show against civil society. Apple has made no secret that it is opposed to such practices, filing suit against the NSO Group in November and promising to oppose such practices where it can.

“Apple’s newly released Lockdown Mode will reduce the attack surface, increase costs for spyware firms, and thus make it much harder for repressive governments to hack high-risk users,” said John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

“We congratulate [Apple] for providing protection to human rights defenders, heads of state, lawyers, activists, journalists, and more,” tweeted the EFF, a privacy advocacy group.

What does Lockdown Mode do?

At present, Apple says Lockdown Mode provides the following protections:

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