BOSTON – Apple released an emergency software patch to fix a security vulnerability that researchers said could allow hackers to directly infect iPhones and other Apple devices without any user action.
The researchers at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab said the flaw allowed spyware from the world's most infamous hacker-for-hire firm, NSO Group, to directly infect the iPhone of a Saudi activist.
The flaw affected all Apple's operating systems, the researchers said.
It was the first time a so-called “zero-click” exploit had been caught and analyzed, said the researchers, who found the malicious code Sept. 7 and immediately alerted Apple. They said they had high confidence the Israeli company NSO Group was behind the attack, adding the targeted activist asked to remain anonymous.
“We're not necessarily attributing this attack to the Saudi government,” said researcher Bill Marczak.
Although Citizen Lab previously found evidence of zero-click exploits being used to hack into the phones of al-Jazeera journalists and other targets, “this is the first one where the exploit has been captured so we can find out how it works,” said Marczak.
Although security experts say that average iPhone, iPad and Mac user generally need not worry – such attacks tend to be highly targeted – the discovery still alarmed security professionals.
Malicious image files were transmitted to the activist's phone via the iMessage instant-messaging app before it was hacked with NSO's Pegasus spyware, which opens a phone to eavesdropping and remote data theft, Marczak said.
In a blog post, Apple said it was issuing a security update for iPhones and iPads because a “maliciously crafted” PDF file could lead to them being hacked.
Apple didn't respond to questions regarding whether this was the first time it had patched a zero-click.
Citizen Lab called the iMessage exploit FORCEDENTRY and said it was effective against Apple iOS, MacOS and WatchOS devices.