Apple’s New Lockdown Feature Isn’t for You

Could be a lifesaver for those who need it

  • Apple devices will soon have a Lockdown Mode setting to thwart snooping attempts. 
  • The feature will turn off certain functions and features without making the device completely unusable.
  • To better protect a larger section of its users, Apple must concentrate on sanitizing its app store, suggest experts.
Young man showing his eyes on a smart phone

Francesco Carta fotografo / Getty Images

Apple devices will soon have a feature that you’d rather have and not need, than need and not have.

Known as Lockdown Mode, the new feature is designed to help protect users’ devices from spyware. Apple has said the feature is an extreme measure for people who are at high-risk of being targeted by spyware used by governments and law enforcement.

"I don’t think this is that extreme at all," Tom Bridge, Principal Product Manager at JumpCloud, told Lifewire over email. "I used to work with a number of people who were on the radar of various nation-state actors, and it was a constant worry. For those who work in high-value spaces with high profiles, this is a welcome change to close avenues of attack without neutering the device."

Block Snoopers

Lockdown Mode will be introduced in iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura later this year. The genesis of the feature can be traced back to 2021’s NSO spyware scandal, which led to Google security researchers discovering a novel attack mechanism known as a zero-click exploit.

"Short of not using a device, there is no way to prevent exploitation by a 'zero-click exploit;' it's a weapon against which there is no defense," claimed Google Project Zero engineers Ian Beer & Samuel Groß in a blog post.

Back then, security researchers told Lifewire that such zero-click attacks weren’t going to die anytime soon. Not surprisingly, in February 2022, a second surveillance firm was found using the iPhone's zero-click exploit to spy on people. 

The Lockdown Mode is designed to curtail any such snooping attempts. "Lockdown Mode is a groundbreaking capability that reflects our unwavering commitment to protecting users from even the rarest, most sophisticated attacks," noted Ivan Krstić, Apple’s head of Security Engineering and Architecture, in the release announcement.

Bridge considers the addition of the Lockdown Mode a welcome step and said no one can slam the door shut on mercenary attackers like Apple can. "Apple has said this isn’t for everyone," noted Bridge, "but the people who need this support need it to be in the operating system, not just as a bolt-on."

Evan Krueger, Head of Engineering at Token, believes equipping people with the ability to control the level of security on their device is always preferable to limiting or gating those options based on someone else’s criteria. 

"It’s true that most users won’t require such a restricted permission scheme," Krueger told Lifewire via email, "but as long as Apple, and any company offering a similar option, is clear in its communication about the tradeoffs and how to enable or disable the protections, I see it as a net positive."

Bolstering Privacy

The debut of lockdown mode comes amid a larger conversation about the need for better protection of people’s personal data.

Bridge noted that while Apple has a great track record preserving on-device privacy, their record in the App Store is a whole lot less sterling. The one thing that bothers him in particular is the presence of bad actors on the App Store who are pretending to be something they’re not, all while gathering data from end users’ devices.

"While Apple has made this harder, there are still tens of thousands of copycat apps that are just honeypots for information," said Bridge. "How they haven’t hardened the App Store against these bad actors is beyond me."

Short of not using a device, there is no way to prevent exploitation by a 'zero-click exploit.'

According to a 2021 investigation by The Washington Post, scam apps are "hiding in plain sight" on the App Store. The investigation revealed that 18 of the top 1000 highest grossing apps on Apple’s App Store were guilty of scamming iOS users. WaPo used figures from market research firm Appfigures to suggest scam apps had milked about $48 million from iOS users.

For what it’s worth, Apple has been making moves to improve privacy on the App Store, with the addition of Privacy Labels to help people make informed decisions before downloading apps, and the spring cleaning initiative to remove old and non-compliant apps.

In addition to Apple, Bridge suggests people should also take more responsibility and look at how they manage their devices. "This should complement the work that Apple has done, and this kind of approach is essential as everyone works in more flexible ways," opined Bridge.

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