FSB accuses Apple of conspiring with US in espionage campaign

Apple is denying claims made by Russia’s secret service arm, the FSB, that the California-based tech company is behind a coordinated spy campaign with the US government to surveil Russian iPhone users.

Russia's Federal Security Service claims that it has uncovered a US-led espionage operation against it leveraging iPhone malware exploiting “unknown software vulnerabilities allowed by the manufacturer.”

“We have never worked with any government to insert a backdoor into any Apple product and never will,” Apple said in a statement released Thursday following the Kremlin’s accusations.

The claims by Russia’s notorious intelligence agency were cited by a self-styled Russian policy pundit on Twitter June 1st and reported by mainstream media on the same day.

The mysterious Oleg Shakirov appears to have translated a Russian statement from KGB successor, the FSB, and posted about it on Twitter. He also linked to the original document from the social media platform.

“Thousands of devices are said to be infected, not only those of Russians but also phones registered by diplomatic missions to Russia, including NATO, post-Soviet states, Israel, Syria, China,” tweeted Shakirov.

He added: “FSB claims it discovered a US intelligence operation conducted via an unknown iPhone malware that exploited ‘software vulnerabilities allowed by the manufacturer.’ Essentiall [sic], it suggests a conspiracy between IC [the international community] and Apple.”

However, Shakirov has less than 6,000 followers on Twitter and therefore should be treated with due caution as a secondary source.

That said, other news agencies have given the story some merit, although Cybernews was unable to verify the authenticity of any of the claims made by either the FSB or Shakirov at the time of going to press.

According to Reuters, the FSB claims accuse its US counterpart the National Security Agency (NSA) of conspiring with Apple.

“The hidden data collection was carried out through software vulnerabilities in US-made mobile phones,” it quoted Russia’s foreign ministry as saying.

“The US intelligence services have been using IT corporations for decades to collect large-scale data of internet users without their knowledge,” the ministry reportedly added, an apparently pointed reference to the Snowden whistleblower revelations that came to light in 2013.

Meanwhile, Kaspersky released a story on the same day as the Shakirov tweets went out, saying its SecureList team of cyber analysts had “noticed suspicious activity that originated from several iOS-based phones.”

It added: “Since it is impossible to inspect modern iOS devices from the inside, we created offline backups of the devices in question [...] and discovered traces of compromise.”

The researchers added that the oldest instance of infection in this case dated back to 2019 and speculated that the “malicious toolset” lacked the capacity for “persistence” or long-term damage because of a limited operating system.

Kaspersky stopped short of attributing the campaign, which it dubbed Operation Triangulation, to any known threat actors.

Shakirov also cited the Kaspersky research findings in his Twitter thread, adding: “No mention of victims, but could probably describe the same op [sic] reported by FSB.”

It should also be noted that Kaspersky too has had doubt cast on its reliability over alleged ties with Russia including the FSB itself, although to date the accusations against it have yet to be proven.

In his thread of tweets, Shakirov also referred to a similar incident in March, when US officials abroad had to be shielded by an executive order signed by President Joe Biden, after more than 50 of them suffered cyberattacks to their Apple devices.

In that case the attacks were said to have been carried out using Pegasus spyware made by controversial Israeli firm NSO, whose flagship product has been linked to human rights abuses all over the world.

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