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Snoopgate: How to tell if your phone’s hacked


The government has asked Apple to join its investigation into allegations that the iPhones of some opposition leaders and journalists could have been compromised by “state-sponsored” hackers. Is your phone hacked? What can you do about it?

What is a state-sponsored attack?

State-sponsored cyberattacks typically involve hackers from a specific country targeting government websites or critical infrastructure like power grids. Think Chinese or Pakistani attacks on India. So when several opposition leaders and journalists received iPhone alerts on Tuesday, warning them of ‘state-sponsored’ privacy attacks, they were rattled. While the Indian government has urged Apple to help with the investigation, it has also asked why it sent the threat notifications to people in over 150 countries. Apple clarified that the alerts did not specify any state-sponsored attacker.

Don’t govts target their citizens too?

In 2021, a global investigation revealed that a military-grade spyware called Pegasus, developed by the Israeli NSO Group, was used to hack into the phones of activists and journalists in India and abroad. A year later, a technical committee set up by the Supreme Court concluded that the phones it examined did not have Pegasus installed in them. However, it added that the Indian authorities “did not cooperate” with its investigation. Many countries, including China, Russia, the UK, and the US, have been accused of spying on each other, and their citizens too, with the help of phony apps, spyware, and trojans.

Aren’t iPhones safer than Android?

Apple can fix its bugs seamlessly since it has a single operating system (OS). Android’s OS, on the other hand, comes in various builds, which makes updates cumbersome. Spyware like Pegasus can gain access to iPhones remotely but, according to security firm Certo Software, remote hacking is “incredibly specialized and expensive”, costing at least $100,000.

How do hackers snoop on phones?

Hackers lure users into installing an app with malware, or by impersonating a company or trusted individual. They also use public Wi-Fi hotspots, and keyloggers to snoop on what you type or say. Hackers can even make a Bluetooth connection to your phone if it’s within 30 feet. A compromised phone gives a hacker access to a user’s messages, photos, call logs, internet history and everything synced to online storage sites, including data such as credit card accounts and other personal information.

How can you tell if your phone’s hacked?

A battery that drains rapidly is one sign. Other signs include the phone getting a bit sluggish or hot; apps quitting suddenly or your phone rebooting; and strange data, text, or other strange charges propping up in your phone bill. McAfee advises users to encrypt their phones (in your ‘security’ settings), lock SIM cards, use virtual private networks whenever possible, turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when not in use, and steer clear of third-party app stores. Update your security software and OS regularly.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.