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Dozens of VIPs’ phones targeted by spies, warns Apple

Apple store in Washington
Apple store in Washington

Apple has sent warnings to dozens of iPhone users in more than 90 countries that they may have been hacked by “mercenary spyware”.

The tech giant told customers that they are likely to have been targeted because of their jobs or public profile.

Its warning notice said: “Apple detected that you are being targeted by a mercenary spyware attack that is trying to remotely compromise the iPhone associated with your Apple ID.”

The notification warns that victims may have been targeted because of “who you are or what you do”. Reuters reported that at-risk users in 92 countries would be receiving the warning.

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Apple did not name the spyware or what countries were at risk. The Economic Times reported users in India were among those who had been contacted.

However, on a support page on its website, it said similar attacks required “exceptional resources” and have historically been directed by “nation state actors” against politicians, journalists and activists.

While military-grade spyware can be used to target criminals or terrorists, activists have long warned that some countries use it to spy on dissidents or political opponents.

On its support page, Apple highlighted previous alleged attacks using hacking software known as “Pegasus”, developed by Israeli software company NSO Group. NSO was contacted for comment.

Hacking tools such as Pegasus are typically designed to be covertly deployed onto target phones using “zero click” techniques, meaning the victim does not need to click a dangerous link or download a malicious file to be infected.

Once the spyware attacker gains access, they can snoop on the victim’s phone activity undetected. People who receive the Apple warning notification are advised to seek specialist help from cyber security experts.

Apple previously sued NSO Group, seeking an injunction to ban the company from using its devices and damages. At the time, Apple said: “NSO Group and its clients devote the immense resources and capabilities of nation-states to conduct highly targeted cyberattacks.”

An attempt by NSO to have the lawsuit thrown out was quashed by a US judge in January. The case is ongoing.

NSO Group has always insisted its technology is used to hunt down criminals and stop terror attacks, and its use is limited to militaries and intelligence agencies from countries with a strong record on human rights. In response to Apple’s 2021 lawsuit, NSO said its tools had saved “thousands of lives”.

NSO Group declined to comment.