Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said on Thursday it had uncovered a plot by the US National Security Agency (NSA) to use previously unknown malware to gain access to so-called specially designed backdoors in Apple phones.
The FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said several thousand Apple phones were affected, including domestic Russian subscribers.
Neither Apple nor the NSA immediately responded to emailed requests for comment.
Russia’s spy service also said the phones of foreign diplomats in Russia and the former Soviet Union, including Israel, Syria, China and NATO members, had been targeted.
“The FSB has uncovered intelligence activity by US special services involving the use of Apple mobile devices,” the FSB said in a statement.
According to Harvard University’s Belfer Center Cyber 2022 Power Index, the United States is the world’s largest cyber power, followed by China, Russia, the United Kingdom and Australia.
According to the FSB, the plot points to “close cooperation” between Apple and the NSA, the US company responsible for US cryptographic and communications intelligence and security.
Both the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry stressed the importance of the case.
“The covert data collection was carried out through software vulnerabilities in US-made mobile phones,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“US intelligence agencies have been using IT companies for decades to collect data from internet users on a large scale without their knowledge,” the ministry said.
The FSB said the plot was discovered as part of a joint effort by its officers and the Federal Guard (FSO), a powerful agency that heads the Kremlin’s bodyguards and was once the KGB’s ninth directorate.
Officials in Russia have long questioned the security of U.S. technology, saying Western spies have developed a highly sophisticated domestic surveillance infrastructure.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said all officials in the presidential administration knew that gadgets like iPhones were “absolutely transparent.”
“Using it for official purposes is unacceptable and prohibited,” Peskov said, adding that officials are free to use iPhones for personal, non-official communications.
Putin has always said he does not own a smartphone, although the Kremlin has said the former KGB spy occasionally uses the Internet.
The Russian Apple phone alert came hours before Moscow-based antivirus firm Kaspersky Lab issued a statement saying an unknown number of its employees had their iPhones compromised in a “highly sophisticated, professionally targeted cyber attack.”
Kaspersky, the spyware, was distributed through an invisible message, installed through vulnerabilities in the iOS operating system and sent information from the phone to remote servers.
Kaspersky said the digital espionage campaign targeted the company’s “top and middle management” and released a technical report detailing how the malicious software worked.
The company did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment on the timing of the report and whether it was related to the FSB alert.
Earlier this year, the Kremlin told officials involved in preparations for Russia’s 2024 presidential election to stop using Apple iPhones because they feared the devices were vulnerable to Western intelligence agencies, newspaper Kommersant reported.
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