‘Zero Click’ iPhone Hacks Hit 36 Al Jazeera Journalists | #ios | #apple | #iossecurity


This summer, iPhones belonging to as many as 36 Al Jazeera journalists were silently infected with malware, according to research released Sunday. They were subjected to silent attacks that appeared to exploit a vulnerability in Apple’s iOS  and installed malware on the iOS devices, leaving reporters’ phones open to snooping, the researchers claimed.

Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research body that tracks surveillance companies, claimed the malware was most likely created by NSO Group, an Israeli spy tech vendor that is currently defending itself in a lawsuit brought by Facebook, over attacks on 1,400 WhatsApp users in 2019. Citizen Lab also claimed with “medium confidence” that the attacks were likely carried out by snoops in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., using NSO’s powerful tools.

The malware could record audio from the iPhone microphone, including extracting the audio of encrypted phone calls. It could also take pictures, track device location and access passwords, Citizen Lab said.

Al Jazeera declined to respond to press enquiries, as it was publishing its own report on Sunday. The targeted journalists were based in Doha, Qatar. The attacks were first detected on the iPhone of Tamer Almisshal, an investigative journalist for Al Jazeera’s Arabic language channel. It appeared that the infected devices contained “anomalous communications” with Apple servers, explained Citizen Lab researcher Bill Marczak. In particular, it appeared the spy tools exploited the “imagent” background process on iOS that handles push notifications for FaceTime and iMessages.

The vulnerabilities were patched in iOS 14, Marczak added. Apple said it had been made aware of the matter, but was unable to validate Citizen Lab’s findings. “At Apple, our teams work tirelessly to strengthen the security of our users’ data and devices. iOS 14 is a major leap forward in security and delivered new protections against these kinds of attacks,” a spokesperson said. “The attack described in the research was highly targeted by nation-states against specific individuals. We always urge customers to download the latest version of the software to protect themselves and their data.”

Embassies for Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. hadn’t responded to emails requesting comment at the time of publication.

NSO defends itself

In response to a Forbes enquiry, an NSO spokesperson said it was the first the company had heard of the assertions and noted it doesn’t have any information on its customers’ targets. It simply provides the software that infects mobile devices, according to the company, which says that its products enable law enforcement agencies “to tackle serious organized crime and counterterrorism.” 

“However, when we receive credible evidence of misuse, combined with the basic identifiers of the alleged targets and timeframes, we take all necessary steps in accordance with our product misuse investigation procedure to review the allegations,” the spokesperson added.

“We are unable to comment on a report we have not yet seen. We do know that Citizen Lab regularly publishes reports based on inaccurate assumptions and without a full command of the facts, and this report will likely follow that theme.” 

Earlier this week, Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company would be filing an amicus brief in support of WhatsApp’s case against NSO. In a blog post on Thursday, he warned about the dangers posed by companies like NSO. “An industry segment that aids offensive cyberattacks spells bad news on two fronts. First, it adds even more capability to the leading nation-state attackers, and second, it generates cyberattack proliferation to other governments that have the money but not the people to create their own weapons. In short, it adds another significant element to the cybersecurity threat landscape.”

U.K.-based presenter hacked

Another victim of the iPhone attacks, according to Citizen Lab, was U.K.-based journalist Rania Dridi. The Alarby TV presenter told Forbes she was confused and unsure as to why hackers would have “penetrated my private life.” It could’ve been that she presented on current affairs for the TV network, a “platform for the Arab youth,” or that she was a close contact of another journalist who had been critical of the Saudi Arabian and U.A.E. regimes.

Citizen Lab said Dridi’s iPhone Xs Max was hacked at least six times with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware between 26 October 2019 and 23 July 2020.

Apple under attack

The zero-click attacks show how severe vulnerabilities in iPhones, which are believed to be some of the most secure consumer smartphones on the market, are being abused in the real world. Just earlier this month, a Google researcher showed how he could hack into any iPhone within 100 meters thanks to a weakness in the Apple tech that enabled Airdrop and other wireless tools.

With iOS 14, the latest zero-day flaws (vulnerabilities that were exploited when no patch was available) have now been addressed. But such potent attacks will continue as long as governments and their suppliers continue to invest in software that can undo the many complex security locks Apple puts on its devices.



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