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Apple dropped ‘state-sponsored’ under pressure from GoI: Report

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Apple made a notable change in its cybersecurity notifications, shifting from attributing attacks to ‘state-sponsored’ actors to labelling them as originating from ‘mercenary spyware’. However, this shift in terminology could be due to the pressure it faced from the Indian government.

According to Reuters, Apple removed the term ‘state-sponsored’ from threat notifications after facing repeated pressure from the Indian government for linking these breaches to state actors. However, it is unclear if other governments put similar pressure or raised concerns.

On Thursday, Apple emphasised that it does not specifically attribute the attacks or the warnings to any particular attackers or geographical regions. Apple’s previous notification informed affected users they were targeted by ‘state-sponsored’ attackers.

The tech giant’s shift in terminology can also be attributed to the criticism and pressure it faced in October 2023 when it alerted several device users in India, including opposition figures and journalists, about being targeted by the PM Modi-led NDA government — igniting controversy and prompting calls for investigations. The Indian government, responding to the outcry, urged Apple to collaborate with the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-in) for further investigation into the alleged hacking incident.

However, Apple’s stance remains consistent: It issues such threat notifications multiple times yearly, and 150 countries have received similar warnings since 2021. The shift in language was applied to notifications sent to people from 92 countries, including India, marking a significant departure from previous terminology.

Governments worldwide have used Pegasus by NSO Group to target journalists, activists, and opposition members.

Using terms like ‘state-sponsored actors,’ ‘government-backed attackers,’ and ‘nation-state attackers’ has been common in describing cyber threats by several companies, including Google and Microsoft. However, private entities with adequate financial resources can also carry out sophisticated cyberattacks by acquiring spyware from rogue organisations.

When the news of the hack broke out last year, Minister of Communications Ashwini Vaishnaw highlighted in parliament that MPs who received such notification or suspected phone compromise could submit their devices to CERT for investigation.

The Indian government, among others, including Mexico and Bahrain, has been known to use Pegasus to target journalists and opposition leaders. Reports have also emerged that governments have switched to Predator, another spyware after the Pegasus PR nightmare, to continue the surveillance.

In February 2024, it was reported that five spyware companies control global surveillance; namely, Intellexa, Variston, NSO Group, Negg Group, Cy4Gate, and RCS Labs.

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Kumar Hemant

Deputy Editor at Candid.Technology. Hemant writes at the intersection of tech and culture and has a keen interest in science, social issues and international relations. You can contact him here: kumarhemant@pm.me

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