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Russia claims USA spied on its diplomats using iOS malware

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The Russian intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), has accused the United States intelligence of hacking thousands of Apple phones to spy on Russian diplomats. The FSB’s statement, published on Thursday, claims that the U.S. employed previously unknown malware to target iOS devices.

Kaspersky, a Russian-based cybersecurity company also published a report on Thursday about iOS malware from an unknown source. While initially unable to confirm a connection between the attacks, Kaspersky later stated that Russia’s computer security agency had already publicly acknowledged that the indicators of compromise in both reports were the same.

Kaspersky’s report highlights the existence of previously unknown malware targeting iOS devices. The company’s CEO, Eugene Kaspersky, describes it as a complex and professionally targeted cyberattack. The operation, which began in 2019 and continues, targets iPhones via the iMessage service, exploiting vulnerabilities to execute code.

The spyware transmits private information to remote servers, including microphone recordings, messenger photos, and geolocation data. Devices can be reinfected after rebooting, and the spyware erases traces of compromise during the final stages of infection. An indication of spyware presence is the disabling of iOS updates.

The FSB alleges that the malware not only affected domestic users but also targeted foreign numbers and wireless subscribers using SIM cards registered with diplomatic missions and embassies in Russia. The list of affected countries included NATO members, post-Soviet states, Israel, Syria, and China.

Furthermore, Russian intelligence claims that their investigation revealed Apple’s collaboration with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The FSB accuses Apple of misleading users with their commitment to privacy, while Apple’s spokesperson vehemently denies any cooperation with governments to create backdoors.

Experts, such as Oled Shakirov from the Centre for Strategic Research, view the FSB’s accusations as ‘quasi-attribution’, noting the lack of technical details in their statements. This type of accusation is not uncommon by Russian authorities.

The FSB’s recent statement is followed by a warning from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about ‘global surveillance by the U.S.’. They claim that the United States has placed itself above the law and that no state should abuse its technological capabilities.

Just last month, the United States dismantled a two-decade-old Russian malware campaign. Recently, it was found out that the Anonymous Sudan hacker group was backed by Russia.

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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: [email protected]