iPhone Lockdown Mode was announced by Apple as a way to help people who face grave, targeted threats to their digital security. Apple calls this an extreme but optional protection for a small number of users, including journalists, politicians, and for human rights advocates, who are in the crosshairs of state-sponsored spyware, like Pegasus, which was developed by Israel-based NSO group. However, it looks like that a simple, proof of concept website can detect whether you have the mode enabled and may potentially make you a target.
As per a report by Motherboard, a proof of concept website developed by John Ozbay, who is a privacy activist and the CEO of privacy focused company Cryptee, can instantaneously detect whether you are using the Lockdown Mode on your iPhone or not.
Apple developed this feature to add a new layer of protection after at least two Israeli firms exploited flaws in Apple’s software to remotely break into iPhones without the target needing to click or tap anything. Pegasus software by NSO Group can carry out such attacks by injecting malware and accessing private user data. Once Lockdown Mode is enabled, it will not function as it typically does. Apps, websites, and features will be strictly limited for security, and some experiences will be completely unavailable.
“Let’s say you’re in China, and you’re using Lockdown Mode. Now, any website that you visit could effectively detect you are using Lockdown Mode, they have your IP address as well. So, they will actually be able to identify that the user with this IP address is using Lockdown Mode. It’s a tradeoff between security and privacy. [Apple] chose security,” Ozbay was quoted as saying. Ozbay says that among the various features that Lockdown Mode disables, the lack of loading custom fonts is “the easiest thing to detect and exploit.”
“It took us five minutes to put the code together and see if this was working,” he told Motherboard. The privacy activist also says that this issue is technically not a bug but a specific drawback of how Lockdown Mode is designed and there may be no way around it. He says that there is only one way Apple can mitigate this issue and that is by fundamentally changing how the Lockdown Mode works.
Apple claims that Lockdown Mode in iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura further hardens device defences and strictly limits certain functionalities. iOS 16 is likely to be released next month and iPadOS may debut in October.