According to several reports from Reuters and the Washington Post, Apple has told several U.S. Embassy and State Department officials that their iPhone may have been targeted by an unknown attacker using state-sponsored spyware created by the controversial Israeli company NSO Group – Pegasus Spyware.
At least 11 U.S. Embassy officials stationed in Uganda or dealing with issues about the country have reportedly opted to use iPhones registered to their phone numbers overseas, although the identity of the threat behind the intrusions or the nature of the information requested remains unknown.
The attacks in recent months are the first time sophisticated surveillance software has been used against US government officials.
NSO Group is the creator of Pegasus, military-grade spyware that allows government clients to stealthily loot files and photos, eavesdrop on conversations, and track the whereabouts of their victims.
Pegasus Spyware uses contactless exploits sent through messaging apps to infect iPhones and Android devices without forcing targets to click links or take any other action, but by default, it is banned from accessing US phone numbers.
Responding to reports, NSO Group said it was investigating the case and, if necessary, suing clients for illegal use of its tools, adding that it had suspended “affected accounts” citing “the seriousness of the charges”.
It should be noted that the company has long argued that it sells its products to government law enforcement and intelligence agencies only to help track security threats and control terrorists and criminals. But evidence gathered over the years has highlighted the systematic abuse of this technology to spy on human rights defenders, journalists and politicians in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco, Mexico and other countries.
The NSO Group’s actions have taken their toll on it, putting it on the radar of the US Department of Commerce, which placed the company on an economic lockdown last month, which may have been caused by targeting the aforementioned foreign American diplomats.
In addition, tech giants Apple and Meta have since launched a legal attack on the company for illegally hacking into its users, exploiting previously unknown security holes in iOS and WhatsApp’s continuous message encryption service. Apple also said it has begun sending out threat notifications to alert users it says have been targeted by government-sponsored attackers on Nov.23.
To that end, affected users will be sent email and iMessage notifications to addresses and phone numbers associated with users’ Apple IDs, and a prominent Threat Alert banner will be displayed at the top of the page when affected users subscribe. to their accounts at appleid.apple [.] com.
“Government-funded players like the NSO Group are spending millions of dollars on sophisticated surveillance technologies without effective accountability,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software development. “This has to change.”
The disclosure also coincides with a Wall Street Journal report detailing the US government’s plan to work with more than 100 countries to restrict the export of surveillance software to authoritarian governments that use the technology to suppress human rights. China and Russia should not be involved in the new initiative.