Apple says Lockdown Mode in iOS 16 will help block government spyware attacks

Apple said Wednesday it will bring a new “Lockdown Mode” to its upcoming iPhone and Mac software that will switch off certain features aimed at helping targeted individuals combat government-grade spyware.

The technology giant said the new feature is an “extreme optional protection” for device owners who are more likely to be targeted by nation states using powerful spyware, like journalists, activists and human rights defenders.

The feature lands after years of repeated and successful attacks targeting thousands of iPhone users around the world. Spyware makers like NSO Group, Candiru and Cytrox build the exploits that punch through a device’s security protections in order to plant spyware on behalf of their government clients. Apple is typically quick to release security updates for its devices, but wider efforts to bolster its iPhone security exploits against these kinds of exploits have not always been successful.

Security researchers say it’s not uncommon for government-grade spyware to read messages, call logs, download photos, covertly record the device’s microphone and phone calls, take photos using the phone’s camera, access the victim’s passwords and track the phone’s location in real time.

A screenshot showing iOS Lockdown Mode in iOS 16.

A screenshot showing what Lockdown Mode will look like in iOS 16. Image Credits: Apple (supplied)

In rolling out “Lockdown Mode,” those who are subject to targeted hacking attempts can immediately disable a number of features, such as limiting what code can run in apps and on websites and vastly limit other areas of Apple software, such as iMessage and FaceTime, which have been abused by spyware makers to create exploits able to plant spyware on iPhones.

Lockdown Mode will also prevent iPhones and Macs from installing configuration profiles, typically used by organizations to roll out settings and security protections across fleets of devices but also abused by consumer-grade spyware to monitor and secretly download the contents of a victim’s devices. Wired connections are also blocked when Lockdown Mode is enabled, preventing hardware forensic tools from downloading a device’s data.

In a post, Apple said the new lockdown feature “further hardens device defenses and strictly limits certain functionalities, sharply reducing the attack surface that potentially could be exploited by highly targeted mercenary spyware.”

Apple said the feature will arrive in iOS 16, iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura, which are slated for release later this year alongside Apple’s new iPhones.