“The security of iOS, once breached, makes it really challenging to detect these attacks,” says Wardle, who was formerly an NSA staffer. At the same time, though, he adds that attackers would need to assume that a brazen campaign to target Kaspersky would eventually be discovered. “In my opinion, this would be sloppy for an NSA attack,” he says. “But it shows that either hacking Kaspersky was incredibly valuable for the attacker or that whoever this was likely has other iOS zero days as well. If you only have one exploit, you’re not going to risk your only iOS remote attack to hack Kaspersky.”
The NSA declined WIRED’s request for comment on either the FSB announcement or Kaspersky’s findings.
With the release of iOS 16 in September 2022, Apple introduced a special security setting for the mobile operating system known as Lockdown Mode that intentionally restricts usability and access to features that can be porous within services like iMessage and Apple’s WebKit. It is unknown whether Lockdown Mode would have prevented the attacks Kaspersky observed.
The Russian government’s purported discovery of Apple’s collusion with US intelligence “testifies to the close cooperation of the American company Apple with the national intelligence community, in particular the US NSA, and confirms that the declared policy of ensuring the confidentiality of personal data of users of Apple devices is not true,” according to an FSB statement, adding that it would allow the NSA and “partners in anti-Russian activities” to target “any person of interest to the White House” as well as US citizens.
The FSB statement wasn’t accompanied by any technical details of the described NSA spy campaign, or any evidence that Apple colluded in it.
Apple has historically strongly resisted pressure to provide a “backdoor” or other vulnerability to US law enforcement or intelligence agencies. That stance was demonstrated most publicly in Apple’s high-profile 2016 showdown with the FBI over the bureau’s demand that Apple assist in the decryption of an iPhone used by San Bernadino mass shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The standoff only ended when the FBI found its own method of accessing the iPhone’s storage with the help of Australian cybersecurity firm Azimuth.
Despite the timing of its announcement on the same day as the FSB’s claims, Kaspersky has so far made no claims that the Operation Triangulation hackers who targeted the company were working on behalf of the NSA. Nor have they attributed the hacking to the Equation Group, Kaspersky’s name for the state-sponsored hackers it has previously tied to highly sophisticated malware including Stuxnet and Duqu, tools widely believed to have been created and deployed by the NSA and US allies.
Kaspersky did say in a statement to WIRED that, “Given the sophistication of the cyberespionage campaign and the complexity of analysis of the iOS platform, further research will surely reveal more details on the matter.”
US intelligence agencies and US allies would, of course, have plenty of reason to want to look over Kaspersky’s shoulder. Aside from years of warnings from the US government that Kaspersky has ties to the Russian government, the company’s researchers have long demonstrated their willingness to track and expose hacking campaigns by Western governments that Western cybersecurity firms don’t. In 2015, in fact, Kaspersky revealed that its own network had been breached by hackers who used a variant of the Duqu malware, suggesting a link to the Equation Group—and thus potentially the NSA.
That history, combined with the sophistication of the malware that targeted Kaspersky, suggests that as wild as the FSB’s claims may be, there’s good reason to imagine that Kaspersky’s intruders may have ties to a government. But if you hack one of the world’s most prolific trackers of state-sponsored hackers—even with seamless, tough-to-detect iPhone malware—you can expect, sooner or later, to get caught.