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Apple Warns Opposition MPs And Journalists Of State-Sponsored Attacks, Says Alerts Sent To Users In 150 Countries

Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra, Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi, and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor have said they were alerted by Apple on their iPhones regarding state-sponsored attacks. At least three journalists and a think tank chief were also alerted.

Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra, Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi, and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor have said they were alerted by Apple on their iPhones regarding state-sponsored attacks.
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Multiple Opposition leaders and at least three journalists have alleged that they received a warning on their iPhones from Apple, saying they were “being targeted by state-sponsored attackers” who were trying to “remotely” compromise their devices. 

Several MPs, mostly from the INDIA bloc took to micro-blogging app ‘X’ (formerly Twitter), sharing a screenshot and alleging a hacking attempt and possible spyware attack.

“Received text & email from Apple warning me Govt trying to hack into my phone & email. @HMOIndia - get a life. Adani & PMO bullies - your fear makes me pity you. @priyankac19 - you, I , & 3 other INDIAns have got it so far,” Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra posted.

Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, party spokesperson Pawan Khera, Aam Aadmi Party MP Raghav Chadha, CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav are among the other leaders who have said they received such an alert from Apple on their devices. 
  
"I've been an Apple user for the last 20 years, but never have I ever received a message warning about a state-sponsored attack. You can understand how flustered the central government that it is doing a surveillance on opposition leaders," Chaturvedi said on her X post.

Meanwhile, journalists including Siddharth Varadarajan (The Wire), Sriram Karri (Deccan Chronicle), independent journalist Revathi, and Samir Saran of the think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) have also received such an alert via email and SMS.

Karri, who is the resident editor of Deccan Chronicle, said, “For a couple of years now, several of us lead our lives with this kind of #illegal prying into our lives, invasion of #privacy. Sadly, it is #state #sponsored and incessant.”

Govt has ordered probe: Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw

Union Electronics & Information Technology Minister Ahswini Vaishnaw said that the government has ordered an investigation into the alerts sent by Apple.

While Vaishnaw announced the investigation, he also lashed out at the Opposition and said that "there are some compulsive critics" who are in the habit of criticising the government and don't want development.

"The government is concerned over the issue. We have already ordered an investigation and will get to the root of the issue. I would also like to add that there are some compulsive critics in the country who have a habit of criticising (the government) over every issue. They do not want the country's development," said Vaishnaw.

— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) October 31, 2023

Everyone in my office has got Apple alert: Rahul Gandhi

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has said that everyone in his office has got the alert from Apple. He said Congress leaders Pawan Khera and KV Venugopal have also get similar alerts.

Rahul also said that the enquiry into the Pegasus case where media reports said several leaders across the world were targeted with a spyware of that name.

"The last enquiry into Pegasus, in which my name was also there, sort of disappeared. So, that tells you the situation in the country. Out job as the Opposition is to make people understand what's going on and I am happy more and more people are understanding what's going on. This is clearly a sign of panic...This is not the work of someone who is not afraid or someone who is honest. This is the work of criminals and thieves," said Rahul at a press conference. 

The Apple alert explained

“State-sponsored attackers may be targeting your iPhone. Apple believes you are being targeted by state-sponsored attackers who are trying to remotely compromise the iPhone associated with your Apple ID. These attackers are likely targeting you individually because of who you are or what you do. If your device is compromised by a state-sponsored attacker, they may be able to remotely access your sensitive data, communications, or even the camera and microphone. While it's possible this is a false alarm, please take this warning seriously. If you've previously received a threat notification from Apple, this additional notice is to inform you that we believe new or continued targeting has occurred,” the message received from Apple read.

“Researchers and journalists have publicly documented such attacks against popular cloud services, including iMessage as well as Facebook Messenger, Gmail, Signal, and WhatsApp. Always update your messaging and cloud apps to the latest available versions, as they contain the most up-to-date security improvements. Some state-sponsored attacks require no interaction from you, and others rely on tricking you into clicking a malicious link or opening an attachment in an email, SMS, or other message. These attempts can be quite convincing, ranging from fake package tracking updates to custom-crafted, emotional appeals claiming a named family member is in danger,” it further read.

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Outlook cannot independently verify the authenticity of the messages received or the source of the apparent snooping attempt. However, Apple has a provision to send such alerts - known as Apple threat notifications. The company claims they are designed to inform and assist users who may have been targets of state-sponsored attacks.

Apple issues statement after alerts 

After alerts sent to users came to light, Apple in a statement said that it cannot ascertain any one state actor behind the threats posed and it is possible that some of the alerts could be false alarm. 

CNBC TV18 also reported that Apple sent such alerts to users in around 150 countries across the world. 

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"Apple does not attribute the threat notifications to any specific state-sponsored attacker...It’s possible that some Apple threat notifications may be false alarms, or that some attacks are not detected," said Apple in a brief statement, according to CNBCTV 18.

Memories of Pegasus

The alerts have brought back the debate around the usage of Pegasus, an Israeli spyware, by the Indian government, which was claimed by many reports in 2019 when several activists, political leaders, public officials and journalists were allegedly targetted. Investigative reports by Amnesty International, Citizen Lab, and notifications from WhatsApp had corroborated its use, suggesting an apparent pattern.

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A report by The Washington Post had also claimed that hundreds of Indian phone numbers appeared on a list for surveillance by Pegasus spyware.

Earlier this year, Telangana BSP president RS Praveen Kumar had also said that he received an alert from Apple cautioning him about a state-sponsored attack on his device, according to a report by The News Minute. Praveen had claimed that either the BRS-led state government or the BJP at Centre were behind the surveillance attempt.

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