Apple’s iPhone Spyware Problem Is Getting Worse. Here’s What You Should Know

In 2021, researchers at Google’s Project Zero detailed how an iMessage-based zero-click exploit was used to target a Saudi activist. “Short of not using a device, there is no way to prevent exploitation by a zero-click exploit; it’s a weapon against which there is no defense,” the researchers warned.

The spyware infection chain using zero-click exploits via iMessage was demonstrated by security outfit Kaspersky as part of its Operation Triangulation research last year.

All that needs to happen is, the victim receives an iMessage with an attachment containing a zero-click exploit. “Without any further interaction, the message triggers a vulnerability, leading to code execution for privilege escalation and providing full control over the infected device,” says Boris Larin, principal security researcher at Kaspersky’s Global Research & Analysis Team.

Once the attacker establishes their presence on the device, he says, the message is automatically deleted.

Rise of Pegasus

The most prominent and well-known spyware is Pegasus, made by Israeli firm NSO Group to target vulnerabilities in iOS and Android software.

Spyware only exists because of vendors such as NSO Group, which claims it sells exploits to governments only to hunt criminals and terrorists. “Any customers, including governments in Europe and North America, agree not to disclose those vulnerabilities,” says Richard Werner, cybersecurity advisor at Trend Micro.

Despite NSO Group’s claims, spyware has continued to target journalists, dissidents, and protesters. Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi’s wife, Hanan Elatr, was allegedly targeted with Pegasus before his death. In 2021, New York Times reporter Ben Hubbard learned his phone had been targeted twice with Pegasus.

Pegasus was silently implanted onto the iPhone of Claude Magnin, the wife of the political activist Naama Asfari, who was jailed and allegedly tortured in Morocco. Pegasus has also been used to target pro-democracy protesters in Thailand, Russian journalist Galina Timchenko, and UK government officials.

In 2021, Apple filed a lawsuit against NSO Group and its parent company to hold it accountable for “the surveillance and targeting of Apple users.”

The case is still ongoing, with NSO Group attempting to dismiss the lawsuit, but experts say the problem is not going to go away as long as spyware vendors are able to operate.

David Ruiz, senior privacy advocate at security firm Malwarebytes, blames “the obsessive and oppressive operators behind spyware, who compound its danger to society.”

The Spyware Drain

If you are faced with a zero-click exploit delivering spyware, experts say there is very little you can do to protect yourself or restore security to your devices. “The best thing to do if you are targeted is to entirely abandon both the hardware and any associated accounts,” says Aaron Engel, chief information security officer at ExpressVPN. “Get a new computer, get a new phone number, and create completely new accounts linked to the device.”

Detecting spyware can be challenging, but unusual behavior such as your battery draining quickly, unexpected shutdowns, or high data usage could be indicative of some types of infections, says Javvad Malik, lead security awareness advocate at security training organization KnowBe4. While specific apps claim to spot spyware, their effectiveness can vary, and professional assistance is often necessary for reliable detection, he says.