Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said the security issue was exploited to plant spyware on a Saudi activist’s iPhone. They said they had high confidence that the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire firm, Israel’s NSO Group, was behind that attack.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – Apple released a critical software patch to fix a security vulnerability that researchers said could allow hackers to directly infect iPhones and other Apple devices without any user action.
It was the first time a so-called “zero-click” exploit — one that doesn’t require users to click on suspect links or open infected files — has been caught and analyzed, the researchers said. They found the malicious code on September 7 and immediately alerted Apple. The targeted activist asked to remain anonymous, they said.
The previously unknown vulnerability affected all major Apple devices — iPhones, Macs and Apple Watches — the researchers said. NSO Group responded with a one-sentence statement saying it will continue providing tools for fighting “terror and crime.”
Citizen Lab previously found evidence of zero-click exploits being used to hack into the phones of Al-Jazeera journalists and other targets but hasn’t previously seen the malicious code itself.
“We’re not necessarily attributing this attack to the Saudi government,” said researcher Bill Marczak.
Although security experts say that average iPhone, iPad and Mac user generally need not worry — such attacks tend to be limited to specific targets — the discovery still alarmed security professionals.
Malicious image files were transmitted to the activist’s phone via the iMessage instant-messaging app before it was hacked with NSO’s Pegasus spyware, which opens a phone to eavesdropping and remote data theft, Marczak said. It was discovered during a second examination of the phone, which forensics showed had been infected in March. He said the malicious file causes devices to crash.
Citizen Lab says the case reveals, once again, that NSO Group is allowing its spyware to be used against ordinary civilians. In a blog post, Apple said it was issuing a security update for iPhones and iPads because a “maliciously crafted” PDF file could lead to them being hacked. It said it was aware that the issue may have been exploited and cited Citizen Lab.
In a subsequent statement, Apple security chief Ivan Krstić commended Citizen Lab and said such exploits “are not a threat to the overwhelming majority of our users.” He noted, as he has in the past, that such exploits typically cost millions of dollars to develop and often have a short shelf life. Apple didn’t respond to questions regarding whether this was the first time it had patched a zero-click vulnerability.
Users should get alerts on their iPhones prompting them to update the phone’s iOS software. Those who want to jump the gun can go into the phone settings, click “General” then “Software Update,” and trigger the patch update directly. Citizen Lab called the iMessage exploit FORCEDENTRY and said it was effective against Apple iOS, MacOS and WatchOS devices. It urged people to immediately install security updates.
The researchers said it also undermines NSO Group’s claims that it only sells its spyware to law enforcement officials for use against criminals and terrorists and audits its customers to ensure it’s not abused. “If Pegasus was only being used against criminals and terrorists, we never would have found this stuff,” said Marczak.
“Chat apps are increasingly becoming a major way that nation-states and mercenary hackers are gaining access to phones,” he said. “And, it’s why it’s so important that companies focus on making sure that they are as locked down as possible.” Researcher John Scott-Railton said the news highlights the importance of securing popular messaging apps against such attacks.