Apple released an emergency software patch to fix a security vulnerability that researchers said could allow hackers to directly infect 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 analysed, said the researchers, who found the malicious code on September 7 and immediately alerted Apple. They said they had high confidence the Israeli company NSO Group was behind the attack, adding that 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 are highly targeted — the discovery still alarmed security professionals.
A malicious image file was 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. It was discovered during a second examination of the phone, which forensics showed had been infected in March.
NSO Group did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.