Discovered in August 2016 after a failed attempt at installing it on an iPhone belonging to a human rights activist, an investigation revealed details about the spyware, its abilities, and the security vulnerabilities it exploited. Pegasus is capable of reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords, tracing the location of the phone, accessing the target device's microphone(s) and video camera(s), and gathering information from apps.
Apple released version 9.3.5 of its iOS software to fix the vulnerabilities. News of the spyware garnered significant media attention. It was called the "most sophisticated" smartphone attack ever, and became the first time in iPhone history when a remote jailbreak exploit had been detected. The company that created the spyware, NSO Group, stated that they provide "authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime".
Details of spyware
Pegasus is the name of a spyware that can be installed on devices running certain versions of iOS, Apple's mobile operating system. Upon clicking on a malicious link, Pegasus secretly enables a jailbreak on the device and can read text messages, track calls, collect passwords, trace the phone location, as well as gather information from apps including (but not limited to) iMessage, Gmail, Viber, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Skype.
Discovery of spyware
The vulnerabilities were found ten days before the iOS 9.3.5 update was released. Arab human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor received a text message promising "secrets" about torture happening in prisons in the United Arab Emirates", along with a link. Mansoor sent the link to Citizen Lab. An investigation ensued with collaboration from Lookout security company that revealed that if Mansoor had followed the link, it would have jailbroken his phone on the spot and implanted the spyware into it. Citizen Lab linked the attack to a private Israeli spyware company known as NSO Group, that sells Pegasus to governments for "lawful interception", but suspicions exist that it is applied for other purposes. NSO Group is owned by an American private equity firm, Francisco Partners.
Regarding how widespread the issue was, Lookout explained in a blog post: "We believe that this spyware has been in the wild for a significant amount of time based on some of the indicators within the code" and pointed out that the code shows signs of a "kernel mapping table that has values all the way back to iOS 7". The New York Times and The Times of Israel have both reported that it appears the United Arab Emirates was using this spyware as early as 2013.
Several outstanding lawsuits claim that NSO Group helped clients operate the software and therefore participated in numerous violations of human rights initiated by its clients. Two months after the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi human rights activist, in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, a Canadian resident, filed suit in Israel against NSO Group, accusing the firm of providing the Saudi government with the surveillance software to spy on him and his friends, including Khashoggi. According to the Washington Post and many other prominent media sources, Pegasus enables not merely the keystroke monitoring of all communications from a phone (texts, emails, web searches) but phone calls and location tracking, while also permitting NSO Group to hijack both the mobile phone’s microphone and camera, making it into a constant surveillance device.
Lookout provided details of the three vulnerabilities:
- CVE-2016-4655: Information leak in Kernel – A kernel base mapping vulnerability that leaks information to the attacker allowing him to calculate the kernel’s location in memory.
- CVE-2016-4656: Kernel Memory corruption leads to Jailbreak – 32 and 64 bit iOS kernel-level vulnerabilities that allow the attacker to secretly jailbreak the device and install surveillance software.
- CVE-2016-4657: Memory Corruption in Webkit – A vulnerability in the Safari WebKit that allows the attacker to compromise the device when the user clicks on a link.
News of the spyware received significant media attention, particularly for being called the "most sophisticated" smartphone attack ever, and, for being the first time in iPhone history when a remote jailbreak exploit has been detected.
NSO Group comment
Dan Tynant of The Guardian wrote an article that featured comments from NSO Group, where they stated that they provide "authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime", although the Group told him that they had no knowledge of any incidents.
Bug-bounty program skepticism
In the aftermath of the news, critics asserted that Apple's bug-bounty program, which rewards people for finding flaws in its software, might not have offered sufficient rewards to prevent exploits being sold on the black market, rather than being reported back to Apple. Russell Brandom of The Verge commented that Apple's bug-bounty program, which rewards people who manage to find faults in its software, maxes out at payments of $200,000, "just a fraction of the millions that are regularly spent for iOS exploits on the black market". He goes on to ask why Apple doesn't "spend its way out of security vulnerabilities?", but also writes that "as soon as [the Pegasus] vulnerabilities were reported, Apple patched them—but there are plenty of other bugs left. While spyware companies see an exploit purchase as a one-time payout for years of access, Apple’s bounty has to be paid out every time a new vulnerability pops up." Brandom also wrote; "The same researchers participating in Apple’s bug bounty could make more money selling the same finds to an exploit broker." He concluded the article by writing; "It’s hard to say how much damage might have been caused if Mansoor had clicked on the spyware link... The hope is that, when the next researcher finds the next bug, that thought matters more than the money."
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