Apple adding Lockdown Mode to iPhone, will help users fight Pegasus and govt spyware

Apple has announced a new ‘Lockdown Mode’ for iPhone, iPad, and Apple Macs to safeguard users’ data from sophisticated spyware(s). The new privacy-focused feature will roll out with iOS 16, iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura “this fall”. Apple describes the ‘Lockdown Mode’ as an “extreme, optional protection” for the very small number of users who face “grave” threats to their digital security. Apart from that, Apple has also provided details on its $10 million cybersecurity grant to expand the research and discoverability of mercenary spyware.

The privacy tool is designed to combat government spyware(s) like Pegasus by Israel-based NSO Group and other state-sponsored malware. In a blog post, Apple explains that Lockdown Mode on iPhones, iPads and Apple Macs “hardens device defences and strictly limits certain functionalities”. It mainly blocks access to Messages, Web browsing, and Apple services like FaceTime and Calls. It also blocks wired connections with a computer or accessory, and the device cannot enrol into mobile device management (MDM).

Apple says it is inviting security researchers to find Lockdown Mode bypasses. It will offer rewards through the Apple Security Bounty programme.

In the past, other tech companies have worked on similar approaches to safeguard users’ private data. For instance, Google introduced Advanced Protection in 2017 to prevent phishing, accidental sharing, and fraudulent access to accounts. Microsoft also started working on a Super Duper Secure Mode on the Edge Browser to offer a similar safe browsing experience.

However, Apple’s latest development is significant as it will be available to all users, and it aims to offer protection by disabling several key features on smartphones and laptops. But the exact functioning of the Lockdown Mode remains, and we are awaiting more details from Apple.

It also means Apple’s latest privacy-focused Lockdown Mode will not reach old-gen Apple devices like iPhone 7, iPhone 6S, and more. Whereas, its second-gen iPhone SE will get the Lockdown Mode following the software update.

The latest development comes nearly a month after Italian spyware vendor RCS Lab and telecommunications solutions company Tykelab Srl claimed that new spyware dubbed Hermit is targeting high-profile officials. In 2021, the Pegasus row gained momentum after it was alleged that a host of journalists, opposition politicians, activists, and business people were targeted by Pegasus spyware – a zero-click Trojan virus developed by NSO Group. It essentially offers hackers full access to the victim’s smartphone and its data, including images and messages.

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