Apple increases its promises to safeguard consumers against mercenary spyware

Apple revealed two programs to assist in defending customers who may be specifically targeted by some of the most cutting-edge cyber threats, like those from private organizations creating state-sponsored mercenary spyware.

Lockdown Mode — the first major capability of its kind, coming this fall with iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura — is extreme, optional protection for the very small number of users who face grave, targeted threats to their digital security. Apple also provided information on the $10 million cybersecurity fund it established in November, which would help civil society organizations that study and advocate against the threat posed by mercenary spyware.

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“Apple makes the most secure mobile devices on the market. Lockdown Mode is a groundbreaking capability that reflects our unwavering commitment to protecting users from even the rarest, most sophisticated attacks,” said Ivan Krstić, Apple’s head of Security Engineering and Architecture. “While the vast majority of users will never be the victims of highly targeted cyberattacks, we will work tirelessly to protect the small number of users who are. That includes continuing to design defenses specifically for these users, as well as supporting researchers and organizations around the world doing critically important work in exposing mercenary companies that create these digital attacks.”

For the extremely few individuals who may be personally targeted by some of the most sophisticated digital threats, such as those from NSO Group and other commercial organizations creating state-sponsored mercenary malware, Lockdown Mode offers an extreme, discretionary level of security. Lockdown Mode in iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura substantially reduces the attack surface that might be exploited by highly targeted mercenary spyware by strengthening device protections and rigidly limiting some functionality.

At launch, Lockdown Mode includes the following protections:

  • Messages: Most message attachment types other than images are blocked. Some features, like link previews, are disabled.
  • Web browsing: Certain complex web technologies, like just-in-time (JIT) JavaScript compilation, are disabled unless the user excludes a trusted site from Lockdown Mode.
  • Apple services: Incoming invitations and service requests, including FaceTime calls, are blocked if the user has not previously sent the initiator a call or request.
  • Wired connections with a computer or accessory are blocked when iPhone is locked.
  • Configuration profiles cannot be installed, and the device cannot enroll into mobile device management (MDM), while Lockdown Mode is turned on.

Apple will continue to strengthen Lockdown Mode and add new protections to it over time. To invite feedback and collaboration from the security research community, Apple has also established a new category within the Apple Security Bounty program to reward researchers who find Lockdown Mode bypasses and help improve its protections. Bounties are doubled for qualifying findings in Lockdown Mode, up to a maximum of $2,000,000 — the highest maximum bounty payout in the industry.

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