What just happened? Apple has reportedly warned multiple Russian journalists that they have been the targets of state-sponsored cyberattacks, most likely by Russia. The U.S. tech giant is believed to have discovered the attacks earlier this year when it detected the notorious Pegasus spyware surreptitiously installed in the iPhone of Russian journalist Galina Timchenko and immediately alerted her about its findings.
According to The New York Times, Timchenko may be the first known instance of the Russian state machinery targeting a journalist with Pegasus, but she is not the only one to have fallen prey to the Kremlin's clandestine surveillance operations. Many other independent Russian journalists have since received such alerts from Apple, warning them that they might have been targeted by 'state-sponsored attackers.'
An investigation by watchdog Access Now in collaboration with Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy found that Timchenko's phone was infected last January after the Putin administration declared her to be an 'undesirable (element).' Other independent Russian journalists have also reported receiving warnings from Apple about possible Pegasus infections in their phones, including Yevgeny Erlich of independent Russian media outlet, Current Time, and Maria Epifanova and Evgeniy Pavlov of Novaya Gazeta Europe.
Developed and distributed by the Israeli tech firm NSO Group, Pegasus has been known to be used by governments across the world to spy on dissidents, human rights activists, and journalists. Some of the countries that have used the software against their citizens include the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, among others.
U.S. State Department officials have also reportedly been the targets of Pegasus in recent years. In 2021, many U.S. government employees in Uganda are said to have been targeted with the spyware, while Amnesty International also claimed that the software was used by rogue regimes to target activists and journalists around the world.
Described as a 'zero-click' spyware, Pegasus can be remotely installed on smartphones of targeted individuals to access their private and personal content, including photos, videos, contacts, messages, and more. The tool was once also used by an FBI contractor, but the agency canceled its contract with that company after facing intense pressure from civil liberties groups in the U.S. over privacy concerns. The U.S. has since blacklisted the NSO Group for allowing rogue governments to 'maliciously target' the phones of civilians.