Apple on Wednesday introduced a new security option that restricts some features on its devices, a measure designed to reduce the chances of users being hacked by advanced spyware.
The new feature, called ‘Lockdown Mode’, aims to counter the rise of sophisticated hacking software that is sometimes used by governments to take over someone’s device.
With such software, governments can often read text messages and e-mails on a smartphone or even force them to eavesdrop on the environment.
Watch the latest news on Channel 7 or stream for free on 7plus †
Because iPhones generally receive positive reviews from cybersecurity experts, they are widely used by politicians, activists and other prominent figures who fear they could be targeted by hackers who want to spy on them.
That has led to a cottage industry of spyware companies for mercenaries who find or pay for vulnerabilities in Apple’s iOS smartphone software, then charge governments for the ability to hack into almost anyone’s phone.
Lock Mode restricts some features that spyware groups have abused in the past to gain a foothold on users’ iPhones, such as accepting FaceTime calls from unknown users or automatically loading sample links from people who message them.
Apple considers the features “an extreme, optional protection that should only be used if you believe you are personally the target of a highly sophisticated cyber-attack”.
It also blocks iPhones from communicating with devices connected to them manually.
That eliminates the primary way many law enforcement agencies connect a suspect’s iPhone to a digital forensic tool to search for evidence.
Forensic tools are some of the most common ways police have found digital evidence in abortion-related cases.
According to Emma Weil, a policy analyst at Upturn, a nonprofit that aims to use technology for social justice, the new feature could potentially be used to protect those who want abortion in states where it’s illegal.
“If deployed successfully, it could become more expensive for the police to get into a phone, potentially leaving incriminating digital evidence outside the police force,” Weil said.
The most well-known developer of such spyware, the Israeli NSO Group, has been involved in a number of scandals in recent years.
The company says it doesn’t actively hack people and instead licenses its software to governments.
The NSO’s flagship program, Pegasus, has reportedly been used to hack into phones belonging to a number of leading political figures around the world, including the wife of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Spain’s prime minister, and a witness in a corruption trial of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as dozens of journalists and aid workers.
Since Pegasus was mainly used to hack iPhones, Apple sued NSO for harming Apple and its users. That lawsuit is ongoing.
“Digital security in this context is about harm reduction,” Weil said.
“It’s a balance between making it as difficult as possible for prosecutors to create a compelling case, while not forcing individuals to spend unreasonable amounts of time trying to cover up every digital trace of their lives.”