Apple previews Lockdown Mode to protect users from ‘mercenary spyware’

While it doesn’t happen often, Apple does sometimes preview new features coming to its platforms at seemingly random times. Like, for instance, today the company is showcasing a brand new feature that’s coming to iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura that will help protect users from “mercenary spyware.” And even Apple is calling it “extreme.”

Today, Apple has announced what it calls “Lockdown Mode” for iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura. Apple bills the new security measure as an extreme option, and, therefore, it’s completely optional for users on those platforms. The company also admits that it’s only meant for a “small number” of people, as the types of attacks the new Lockdown Mode is meant to protect from is rare.

However, for the people who are in danger of being targeted by these high-level cyberattacks (the likes of journalists, government employees, and activists), especially those designed by private companies, this new Lockdown Mode is designed for them.

Per today’s announcement:

Apple makes the most secure mobile devices on the market. Lockdown Mode is a groundbreaking capability that reflects our unwavering commitment to protecting users from even the rarest, most sophisticated attacks,’ said Ivan Krstić, Apple’s head of Security Engineering and Architecture. ‘While the vast majority of users will never be the victims of highly targeted cyberattacks, we will work tirelessly to protect the small number of users who are. That includes continuing to design defenses specifically for these users, as well as supporting researchers and organizations around the world doing critically important work in exposing mercenary companies that create these digital attacks.’

Earlier today, Apple seeded the third developer betas of iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura. With that prerelease software, Lockdown Mode has gone live (for testers). Apple says the new feature will be live when these software updates are released to the public sometime later this year. It’s located in the Privacy & Security section in Settings, and any user can opt-in to switch on Lockdown Mode.

Here’s what Lockdown Mode protects:

  • Messages: Most message attachment types other than images are blocked. Some features, like link previews, are disabled.
  • Web browsing: Certain complex web technologies, like just-in-time (JIT) JavaScript compilation, are disabled unless the user excludes a trusted site from Lockdown Mode.
  • Apple services: Incoming invitations and service requests, including FaceTime calls, are blocked if the user has not previously sent the initiator a call or request.
  • Wired connections with a computer or accessory are blocked when iPhone is locked.
  • Configuration profiles cannot be installed, and the device cannot enroll into mobile device management (MDM), while Lockdown Mode is turned on.

But, of course, Apple will be making changes to Lockdown Mode and adding new features as time passes. The company is even looking for feedback and collaboration:

Apple will continue to strengthen Lockdown Mode and add new protections to it over time. To invite feedback and collaboration from the security research community, Apple has also established a new category within the Apple Security Bounty program to reward researchers who find Lockdown Mode bypasses and help improve its protections. Bounties are doubled for qualifying findings in Lockdown Mode, up to a maximum of $2,000,000 — the highest maximum bounty payout in the industry.

And Apple is throwing money at the issue, too:

Apple is also making a $10 million grant, in addition to any damages awarded from the lawsuit filed against NSO Group, to support organizations that investigate, expose, and prevent highly targeted cyberattacks, including those created by private companies developing state-sponsored mercenary spyware. The grant will be made to the Dignity and Justice Fund established and advised by the Ford Foundation — a private foundation dedicated to advancing equity worldwide — and designed to pool philanthropic resources to advance social justice globally. The Dignity and Justice Fund is a fiscally sponsored project of the New Venture Fund, a 501(c)(3) public charity.

You can go check out Apple’s full announcement right here.