What is Apple threat notification and why is it creating a furore

The company introduced the threat notification system in November 2021 and since then, it has issued alerts to users in 150 countries around the world.
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.

NEW DELHI: A warning message from American tech giant Apple has created a furore in India. This message, received by Opposition leaders, journalists and other public figures, warned the recipients of
state-sponsored attacks on their iPhones.

Following this, Opposition political parties alleged that the government was conducting surveillance on them. However, the government promptly issued a clarification, with IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw denying any government involvement and asked Apple to participate in the investigation to determine the reason behind this message.

What was the message?

The messages said that Apple believed the receiver was being targeted by state-sponsored attackers attempting to remotely compromise the iPhones associated with their Apple IDs. In simpler terms, it suggested that their iPhones were under attack by individuals associated with government authorities.

In the notification, Apple also advised users to activate the “Lockdown Mode” feature on their iPhones to protect themselves in future from such attacks.

The company also asked users to take extra steps to safeguard themselves against such attacks. These measures include updating to the latest software versions, setting a passcode, enabling two-factor authentication and using a strong password for their Apple ID. Apple also cautioned against clicking on links or attachments from unknown sources and recommended that users only download apps from the official App Store.

When does Apple send these warning messages?

The company introduced the threat notification system in November 2021 and since then, it has issued alerts to users in 150 countries around the world.  Its sole purpose is to warn its users about potential attackers targeting their iPhones.  Consequently, whenever such attacks occur anywhere in the world, the company detects them and sends threat warning notifications via email and messages linked to the users’ Apple IDs.

In India, this is not the first instance of such notifications being sent.  In August 2023, A Murali, a retired IAS officer from Telangana, reported receiving similar alerts on his iPhone.

What does Apple say?

As the issue escalated, Apple released a statement, in which it clarified that it does not attribute the threat notifications to any specific state-sponsored attacker.  The company also declined to divulge information about the triggers for issuing these notifications, citing concerns that such details could aid state-sponsored attackers in adapting their tactics to avoid detection in the future. 

The statement further emphasised that state-sponsored attackers are well-funded and highly sophisticated, and their attack methods evolve over time.

Detecting such attacks relies on threat intelligence signals, which can be imperfect and incomplete. As a result, it’s possible that some Apple threat notifications may be false alarms, or that certain attacks go undetected.

What is the government’s stand?

The Union electronics and IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw says he has asked the American tech giant Apple to participate in the investigation by providing real and accurate information regarding the alleged state-sponsored attacks.

He further emphasised that the government takes its role in safeguarding the privacy and security of all citizens very seriously and is committed to thoroughly investigating these notifications to uncover the truth.

In simple words, he placed the onus on Apple. Subsequently, Cert-IN, the cybersecurity investigation unit under the Ministry of Electronics and IT, will head the investigation.

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The New Indian Express