An iMessage flaw was used to hack Al Jazeera journalists’ iPhones using spyware developed by Israel’s NSO group. The flaw exists in iOS 13.5.1 and was resolved recently with iOS 14.
As per The Guardian, the attack against specific individuals was originated from Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and is considered as an act of espionage against Qatar-based Al Jazeera.
iMessage flaw used to hack journalist’s iPhones
The revelation has come through Citizen Lab’s report which states that all iPhone models, pre-dating iOS 14, were vulnerable to an iMessage flaw.
Researchers at Citizen Lab said the apparent malicious code they discovered, which they claim is used by clients of Israel’s NSO Group, made “almost all” iPhone devices vulnerable if users were using an operating system that pre-dated Apple’s iOS 14 system, which appears to have fixed the vulnerability.
NSO Group, whose spyware is alleged to have been used in previous surveillance campaigns in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has said that its software is only meant to be used by government clients to track down terrorists and criminals.
NSO Group is notorious for creating spyware for different platforms. They have been taken to the court by WhatsApp for exploiting individuals through a vulnerability. The group washes its hands clean of any responsibility of how its spyware is used by its government clients.
“As we have repeatedly stated we do not have access to any information with respect to the identities of individuals our system is used to conduct surveillance on. However, where we receive credible evidence of misuse, combined with the basic identifiers of the alleged targets and timeframes, we take all necessary steps in accordance with our product misuse investigation procedure to review the allegations,”
The iMessage flaw took advantage of a zero-click flaw, which would require targets to simply tap on a link in the app to be infected by the malware. This is an extremely sophisticated type of attack and not a vulnerability that has been used by hobbyists to jailbreak devices.
Citizen Lab found out about the hack after getting contacted by an investigative journalist at Al Jazeera, Tamer Almisshal, who suspected that his iPhone was hacked. Citizen Lab found out that the phone was connected to an NSO server, despite not tapping on any suspicious links in iMessage.
Citizen Lab said that logs of the metadata associated with Almisshal’s internet traffic found that, although he had never clicked on any suspicious links, his phone had connected to an NSO server after it was infected with an apparent malicious code delivered through Apple’s servers. Seconds later, researchers found technical evidence that Almisshal’s phone had been infiltrated.
Regarding this alarming discovery, Apple gave a statement to The Guardian, in which it said:
“We always urge customers to download the latest version of the software to protect themselves and their data.”
The company said that it was not able to independently verify Citizen Lab’s claims, but noted that the attack described in the analysis was targeted against specific individuals by nation states.