Apple has sent a fresh round of threat notifications to some of its users in India, along with 91 other countries, warning them that their iPhone could have been potentially attacked by “mercenary spyware,” including the Israeli NSO Group’s controversial Pegasus malware.

Apple has not attributed the recent wave of attacks to any stakeholder. Last October, it had sent a similar notification to Opposition leaders across parties — from Congress’s Shashi Tharoor to AAP’s Raghav Chadha to TMC’s Mahua Moitra — warning of a “potential state-sponsored spyware attack” on their iPhones.

The company, after pressure from the government, had later clarified that it “does not attribute the threat notifications to any specific state-sponsored attacker”.

The threat notification emails were sent at around 12.30 am IST on Thursday (April 11) to impacted users in India. It is unclear how many people have received the threat notification from Apple. The email also mentions the NSO-Group’s Pegasus spyware, saying tools like those are being used to target people on an ongoing basis globally.

“ALERT: Apple detected a targeted mercenary spyware attack against your iPhone,” reads the subject line of the threat notification, a copy of which has been seen by The Indian Express.

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“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 -xxx-. This attack is likely targeting you specifically because of who you are or what you do. Although it’s never possible to achieve absolute certainty when detecting such attacks, Apple has high confidence in this warning — please take it seriously,” the notification email added.

“Mercenary spyware attacks, such as those using Pegasus from the NSO Group, are exceptionally rare and vastly more sophisticated than regular cybercriminal activity or consumer malware. These attacks cost millions of dollars and are individually deployed against a very small number of people, but the targeting is ongoing and global,” Apple said in its threat notification.

The company advised users to be cautious with all links they receive, and not to open any links or attachments from unexpected or unknown senders.

The company, however, said it was unable to provide more information about what caused it to send the threat notification, as that could help mercenary spyware attackers “adapt their behaviour to evade detection in the future”.

Apple has also updated its support page to include tips for users who had been possible targets of the mercenary spyware attack. “Apple threat notifications are designed to inform and assist users who may have been individually targeted by mercenary spyware attacks, likely because of who they are or what they do,” the iPhone maker said.

Apple started sending these threat notifications in 2021, and since then individuals in 150 countries have received them. When it had sent the notification last year, at least 20 Indians with iPhones had received them.

Investigations into similar issues in the past haven’t yielded much. In 2021, the Supreme Court had formed a committee of technical experts to look into allegations of unauthorised surveillance using the Pegasus software developed by Israeli firm NSO Group.

The Pegasus controversy had broken following media reports of alleged illegal use of the software to tap the phones of some activists, journalists and politicians. Subsequently, several petitions were filed in the Supreme Court seeking an inquiry into the charges.

In August 2022, the committee of technical experts found no conclusive evidence on use of the spyware in phones examined by it but noted that the Central Government “had not cooperated” with the panel.


 


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