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Understanding Zero-Click Hacks: A Deep Dive into iOS User Threats

Zero-click hacks pose a significant threat to iOS users. This guide demystifies these stealthy attacks, explores their implications, and provides practical tips for safeguarding your device.

Maricor Bunal

by Maricor Bunal

June 7, 2023


In the digital age, cybersecurity threats have become increasingly sophisticated, with zero-click hacks emerging as a significant concern. These stealthy attacks, which require no user interaction to compromise a device, have been making headlines recently, particularly concerning iOS users. This article aims to demystify zero-click hacks, explore their implications for iOS users, and provide practical tips for safeguarding your device.

What is a Zero-Click Hack?

As the name suggests, zero-click hacks are cyber-attacks that require no interaction from the user. Unlike traditional phishing attacks, which rely on tricking the user into clicking a malicious link or downloading a compromised file, zero-click attacks can infiltrate a device without the user's knowledge. This stealthy nature makes them particularly dangerous and challenging to prevent.

The Rise of Zero-Click Hacks Targeting iOS Users

In recent years, there has been a surge in zero-click attacks targeting iOS users. Notably, Operation Triangulation and the exploits of the NSO Group have brought this issue to the forefront.

Operation Triangulation: A Stealthy Cyberattack Campaign

TechCrunch reports that Kaspersky, a global cybersecurity company, has been a victim of this alleged hack against its employees. The company has taken a proactive approach to investigating and sharing information about the attack, which it has named "Operation Triangulation."

Operation Triangulation is a sophisticated cyberattack campaign that specifically targets iOS devices. According to a report by Securelist, the target iOS device receives a message via the iMessage service with an attachment containing an exploit. Without any user interaction, the exploit is triggered, compromising the device.

MacRumors further explains that the iOS operating system is a “black box” in which spyware like Triangulation can hide for years. Detecting and analyzing such threats is made challenging due to the closed nature of the system. This highlights the need for continuous vigilance and proactive security measures to protect against stealthy and persistent threats.

Understanding the NSO Group's Role in Zero-Click Attacks

The NSO Group, an Israeli spyware manufacturer, has been at the center of several high-profile zero-click attacks. Their Pegasus spyware has been used to exploit vulnerabilities in iOS, leading to serious privacy and security breaches. The spyware can turn on a phone's camera and microphone, recording messages, texts, emails, and even calls without the user's knowledge or consent. This level of intrusion is unprecedented and has led to international outcry and calls for tighter regulation of spyware.

The Role of Apple in Protecting Users from Zero-Click Attacks

Apple has a crucial role to play in protecting users from zero-click attacks. The company has a reputation for solid security and privacy protections, but the recent spate of zero-click attacks has tested this reputation. In response, Apple has been working to address software vulnerabilities and provide users with tools to protect their devices. This includes regular software updates, security patches, and features like Apple's Lockdown Mode, which can help prevent zero-click attacks.

iOS Hacking Statistics

  1. Kaspersky discovered a malware campaign explicitly aimed at infecting iPhones running up to iOS 15.7 through iMessage. source

  2. At the beginning of the year, Kaspersky detected targeted attacks against a group of iPhones after analyzing the company's corporate network traffic. source

  3. Kaspersky has been hit by an advanced cyberattack that used clickless exploits to infect the iPhones of several dozen employees with malware. source

  4. Kaspersky researchers uncovered an ongoing mobile Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) campaign targeting iOS devices with previously unknown malware. source

  5. Over 1,200 iPhone and iPad apps downloaded 300 million times monthly contain malicious code that secretly steals user data and redirects ads. source

  6. A previously unknown advanced persistent threat (APT) targets iOS devices as part of a sophisticated and long-running mobile campaign dubbed Operation Triangulation that began in 2019. source

  7. More than 128 million iOS users were affected by the "XcodeGhost" malware. source

  8. About 0.7% of Android and 29.1% of iOS devices run on old systems. source

  9. Kaspersky also detected 1,451,660 malware installers in Q1 2021. source

  10. The McAfee report stated that the number of new mobile malware incidences rose by 71% (1.35 million) in Q1 2020, while new iOS malware grew by over 50% (3,249). source

  11. Following Kaspersky's report on the Operation Triangulation campaign targeting iOS devices, the company's researchers have released a special "triangle_check" utility that automatically searches for malware infection. source

  12. Seventeen (17) malicious apps were discovered by mobile security company Wandera, all from the same developer, while Apple spotted another using the same technique. source

  13. Scammers pushing iOS malware are stepping up their game by abusing two legitimate Apple features to bypass App Store vetting requirements and trick people into installing malicious apps. source

  14. An iPhone hacking technique was estimated to cost $1 million or more. source

  15. Some iPhones were silently hacked in 2020 and 2021. source

  16. In 2021, 80.69% of attacks on mobile users belonged to malware. source

  17. Adware accounted for 42% of new mobile malware worldwide. source

  18. There are 50X more Android mobile malware infections than iOS infections. source

Cyber Issues Related To Ios Versions

Here are some of the known cyber issues related to iOS versions as reported by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA):

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You can visit the CISA Known Exploited Vulnerabilities Catalog for detailed information and updates.

The Future of Zero-Click Hacks

As technology continues to evolve, so do cyber threats. Security experts predict that zero-click attacks will become increasingly sophisticated in the coming years, posing an ever-greater challenge to cybersecurity efforts. However, there is also a growing focus on combating these threats, with tech companies investing heavily in security measures and researchers working tirelessly to uncover and address vulnerabilities. As such, staying informed and vigilant is more crucial than ever.

  1. Increased Sophistication of Attacks: As we've seen with the Operation Triangulation and the iMessage malware campaigns, attackers are becoming more sophisticated in their methods. They exploit zero-click vulnerabilities, which require no user interaction and are thus harder to detect and prevent. This trend will likely continue, with attackers developing more advanced techniques to exploit iOS vulnerabilities.

  2. Rise in Zero-Click Exploits: Given the high value of iOS devices and the data they hold, coupled with a significant percentage of iOS devices running on old systems, we can expect an increase in zero-click exploits targeting these devices. The high cost associated with iPhone hacking techniques indicates a lucrative market for these exploits, further incentivizing attackers.

  3. Greater Focus on Mobile Security: In response to the rising threat, there will likely be a greater focus on mobile security from both Apple and third-party security companies. Tools like Kaspersky's "triangle_check" utility represent the beginning of this trend. We can expect more such utilities and security measures to be developed to detect and remove malware from iOS devices.

  4. Increased Malware in Apps: The fact that a significant number of apps contain malicious code that steals user data and redirects ads suggests that attackers are increasingly using apps as a vector for malware. This trend will likely continue, with more malicious apps appearing in the App Store despite Apple's vetting processes.

  5. Abuse of Legitimate Features: Scammers have been found to abuse legitimate Apple features to bypass App Store vetting requirements. This is a concerning trend that is likely to continue, making it even more challenging to prevent malicious apps from being distributed.

  6. Adware Dominance: With adware accounting for 42% of new mobile malware worldwide, we can expect this type of threat to remain dominant in the near future. Adware can be particularly problematic as it can often be difficult to detect and can lead to significant privacy issues.

Protecting Your Device from Zero-Click Hacks

Despite the growing threat of zero-click hacks, there are several strategies that iOS users can employ to safeguard their devices. First and foremost, it's crucial to keep your device updated with the latest software. Apple regularly releases updates to patch security vulnerabilities, which can help protect your device from zero-click attacks. Additionally, it's advisable to be cautious of unsolicited messages and to avoid clicking on suspicious links. Finally, consider using a reputable security solution to detect and block potential threats.

Conclusion

In the face of growing cybersecurity threats, it's more important than ever for iOS users to stay informed and take proactive steps to protect their devices. This includes keeping software up to date, being cautious of unsolicited messages, and using reputable security solutions. As zero-click attacks evolve, staying one step ahead is critical to maintaining digital security.

Remember, knowledge is power, and staying informed is the best defense against cyber threats. As we navigate the digital age, let's do so with caution, understanding, and a commitment to safeguarding our digital spaces.