Apple Warns iPhone Users to be Alert for New Mercenary Spyware

India is once again among the countries where state actors could be targeting select individuals with mercenary spyware.

Apple has sent out threat notifications to iPhone users in 92 countries, warning them of an imminent “mercenary spyware attack” that could compromise their devices.

The list of targeted countries hasn’t been made public by the Cupertino-based tech giant. However, multiple confirmed reports indicate that iPhone (and potentially iPad) owners in India are among those receiving the alert.

Apple distributes threat notifications multiple times a year and they are understood to have reached 150 countries in total since the system was launched in 2021.

What is Mercenary Spyware?

Following news of the far-reaching iPhone threat alerts, the question most of us will be wondering is: what is mercenary spyware?

On its support pages, Apple describes mercenary spyware as “individually targeted attacks of…exceptional cost and complexity” that represent “some of the most advanced digital threats in existence today.”

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Mercenary spyware works by remotely accessing and compromising a device without the knowledge of its user. Unlike other kinds of attacks, the purpose isn’t to extort the victim or even brick the target device, but rather to infiltrate it and then spy on the user, monitoring private communications and stealing data in the background.

Should You Worry About iPhone Mercenary Spyware?

That depends on who you are and what you do.

As we’ve touched on above, mercenary spyware attacks are both expensive and technologically sophisticated. They’re not something you just buy on the dark web for a couple of hundred of bucks, and even those with a fair bit of hacker know-how might struggle to know how to carry them out.

This means that they’re usually associated with state actors and deployed against what Apple suggests is a “small number of individuals” including but not limited to journalists, politicians, diplomats and civil activists.

Probably the highest profile example of mercenary spyware is the Pegasus spyware from the NSO Group. In October 2023, Apple reported a similar warning sent to members of the press in India, after which Amnesty International reported it had traced Pegasus to the iPhones of a number of high profile Indian journalists.

Throw in a crackdown on the legal status of VPNs and it’s easy to see why human rights activists are concerned by recent developments in Indian subcontinent.

What to Do If You Get an iPhone Mercenary Spyware Notification

If you receive a notification on your iPhone or other Apple device that you’re being targeted by mercenary spyware, there are a few things you can do.

The company says that it will provide more specific instructions to affected users after sending them a threat notification, which will be displayed at the top of the Apple ID sign-in page and also be communicated via iMessage and email.

The crux of the advice, though, is simple: put your device on Lockdown Mode and then seek expert cybersecurity help, such as from the 24/7 Digital Security Helpline.

Longer term, it might be worth considering if one of the best iPhone VPNs is a worthwhile investment, especially if you’ve received such notifications in the past and work in a country where digital freedoms aren’t necessarily ironclad.

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Written by:
James Laird is a technology journalist with 10+ years experience working on some of the world's biggest websites. These include TechRadar, Trusted Reviews, Lifehacker, Gizmodo and The Sun, as well as industry-specific titles such as ITProPortal. His particular areas of interest and expertise are cyber security, VPNs and general hardware.
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