Apple warns people of mercenary attacks via threat notification system

Apple has reportedly sent alerts to individuals in 92 nations on Wednesday, April 10, to say it’s detected that they may have been a victim of a mercenary attack. The company says it has sent out these types of threat notifications to over 150 countries since the start in 2021.

Mercenary spyware is used by governments to target people like journalists, political activists, and similar targets, and involves the use of sophisticated tools like Pegasus. Pegasus is one of the world’s most advanced and invasive spyware tools, known to utilize zero-day vulnerabilities against mobile devices.

The second number became known when Apple changed the wording of the relevant support page. The change also included the title that went from “About Apple threat notifications and protecting against state-sponsored attacks” to “About Apple threat notifications and protecting against mercenary spyware.”

If you look at the before and after, you’ll also notice an extra paragraph, again with the emphasis on the change from “state-sponsored attacks” to “mercenary spyware.”

The cause for the difference in wording might be because “state-sponsored” is often used to indicate attacks targeted at entities, like governments or companies, while these mercenary attacks tend to be directed at individual people.

The extra paragraph specifically calls out the NSO Group and the Pegasus spyware it sells. While the NSO Group claims to only sell to “government clients,” we have no reason to take its word for it.

Apple says that when it detects activity consistent with a mercenary spyware attack it uses two different means of notifying the users about the attack:

  • Displays a Threat Notification at the top of the page after the user signs into
  • Sends an email and iMessage notification to the email addresses and phone numbers associated with the user’s Apple ID.

Apple says it doesn’t want to share information about what triggers these notifications, since that might help mercenary spyware attackers adapt their behavior to evade detection in the future.

The NSO Group itself argued in a court case started by Meta for spying on WhatsApp users, that it should be recognized as a foreign government agent and, therefore, be entitled to immunity under US law limiting lawsuits against foreign countries.

NSO Group has also said that its tool is increasingly necessary in an era when end-to-end encryption is widely available to criminals.

How to stay safe

Apple advises iPhone users to:

We’d like to add:

  • Use an anti-malware solution on your device.
  • If you’re not sure about something that’s been sent to you, verify it with the person or company via another communcation channel.
  • Use a password manager.

We don’t just report on phone security—we provide it

Cybersecurity risks should never spread beyond a headline. Keep threats off your mobile devices by downloading Malwarebytes for iOS, and Malwarebytes for Android today.