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While You Weren't Looking

Security Flaw in iPhone Mail App Went Undiscovered for Years

A recently uncovered bug in Apple’s email app shows prominent individuals remain vulnerable to hackers.

A man uses his mobile phone as he walks past advertising for the new iPhone outside the Apple store in Hong Kong on October 10, 2019.
A man uses his mobile phone as he walks past advertising for the new iPhone outside the Apple store in Hong Kong on October 10, 2019. PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news. Here’s what we’re watching this week: A newly discovered flaw in the iPhone email app has been exploited by hackers, Syrian war crimes are tried for the first time in a German court, and U.S. airstrikes in Somalia escalate.

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Apple’s Mail App Leaves Users Vulnerable

A cybersecurity firm has uncovered a long-standing flaw in the Apple iPhone’s Mail app that allows hackers to read and delete emails, according to a company report published on Wednesday. Researchers at ZecOps, which manages cybersecurity for businesses and high-profile individuals, found evidence that at least six prominent people were targeted—including a European journalist, an executive at a Japanese mobile carrier, and employees of a Fortune 500 company.

At least one unnamed country took advantage of the vulnerability, according to the report. The app’s vulnerability does have its limits, preventing it from being used to carry out “mass attacks,” the Guardian reports. While this reduces the risk to the average user, prominent individuals in business and national security could be vulnerable to targeted attacks.

You’ve got mail. While less sophisticated phishing attempts usually ask users to click a malicious link, in the attacks discovered by ZecOps victims were sent a seemingly blank email that forces the phone to reset—and opens the door for hackers to access the device’s information. An Apple spokesperson acknowledged the vulnerability to Reuters and said that a fix would be rolled out shortly, but the company said that it had found “no evidence” that its customers had been targeted.

Reputational risk. The news takes a bite out of Apple’s reputation as the standard-bearer for mobile cybersecurity. But it’s not the first vulnerability: In recent years, cybersecurity researchers have uncovered a number of flaws in the iPhone’s software that can be used to access private information. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that that a Saudi team had been behind the hack of Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’s phone in 2018. The discovery of the latest flaw highlights the fact that despite Apple’s claims to be nigh-invulnerable, skilled and dedicated hackers may still get in.

What We’re Following

Syrian war crimes trial begins in Germany. The landmark trial of a former senior Syrian intelligence official accused of war crimes began in Koblenz, Germany, on Thursday. The trial of Anwar Raslan, estimated to last two years, marks the first time a high-ranking member of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime may be held to account in a court of law. Human rights advocates say it will test whether evidence of atrocities gathered by Syrian activists—rather than by police authorities—can hold up in a European court. China and Russia, an Assad ally, have vetoed previous efforts to refer Syrian war crimes to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Raslan, who defected from the Assad regime in 2013, is alleged to have run an infamous prison in Damascus known as Branch 251. He has been charged with 4,000 counts of torture and 58 murders. Raslan sought asylum in Germany in 2014 and was arrested there in February 2019. His relationships with opposition groups in recent years have left some anti-regime Syrians divided over the case against him, as Anchal Vohra writes for FP.

Libya’s government forces gain ground. Fighting in Libya is intensifying as forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) have gained significant ground in the yearlong fight against forces allied with renegade general Khalifa Haftar. Pro-GNA forces said Saturday that they were closing in on Tarhuna, a stronghold for Haftar’s forces 45 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli. The United Nations Mission in Libya warned on Monday that the escalating violence and a dramatic increase in shelling of densely populated areas of the capital could amount to war crimes, although it did not single out a perpetrator.

Domestic violence rates. Coronavirus-related lockdowns have caused a surge in domestic violence worldwide. In the United Kingdom, the number of domestic violence killings has doubled since its lockdown began in March. In the Palestinian territories on Monday, people banged pots and pans in a signal of solidarity with people confined at home with violent partners. In Argentina, appeals to domestic violence hotlines have increased by 40 percent. “The confinement is plunging thousands of women into hell, trapped with an attacker who they are more afraid of than the coronavirus,” Victoria Aguirre, of the Argentine organization MuMaLa, told Agence France-Presse.

Shifts in press freedom. The annual World Press Freedom Index, a report released this week by Reporters Without Borders, warned that the pandemic would likely amplify threats to journalism as countries such as China, Hungary, and Iraq have clamped down on press freedom amid the coronavirus crisis. There were also some bright spots: Malaysia and the Maldives both made gains after national elections swept out governments hostile to journalism, while Sudan saw improvements following the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir.

Despite recent improvements to Haiti’s media laws, the country fell furthest in the rankings, as journalists have been repeatedly targeted during protests over the past two years. The African countries of Comoros and Benin also saw their rankings drop due to a sharp increase in violations. Norway topped the index for the fourth year in a row.

Keep an Eye On 

U.S. steps up airstrikes. The United States has significantly stepped up airstrikes against suspected members of the al-Shabab militant group in Somalia in the first four months of 2020, the Intercept reports. U.S. Africa Command has conducted 39 airstrikes in Somalia so far this year, putting it on track to exceed last year’s record 63 strikes. The Obama administration, which was criticized for its extensive use of drones, carried out 36 strikes on Somalia during Barack Obama’s eight years in office. Despite the increase in U.S. attacks, al-Shabab has surged in recent years. In January, the group carried out its most brazen attack to date against U.S. forces, killing one service member and two contractors.

Trump’s Greenland ambitions. The United States is set to announce plans to open an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development at the new U.S. consulate in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland—a semi-autonomous Danish territory. Greenlanders cautiously welcomed the U.S. plans to invest $12 million in aid projects in the territory, but they fear the possible strings attached. Last year, Trump floated the idea of buying Greenland, which some U.S. officials see as vital to national security interests because of its proximity to the Arctic and its rich deposits of rare-earth minerals. China has expressed interest in building airports in Greenland, which would give Beijing a military foothold off the Canadian coast.

Will Silicon Valley pay for news? Australia is set to become the latest country, following on European models, to require Google and Facebook to pay news organizations for using their content. The U.S.-based technology companies account for two-thirds of online advertising spending in Australia, while Australian news outlets have shed 20 percent of their workforce over the past six years amid shrinking revenues. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg acknowledged the country had a “mountain to climb” to get the tech titans to comply, citing the experiences of France and Spain—where authorities have reached an impasse over efforts to get both Facebook and Google to pay publishers.

Odds and Ends

Comeback kid. The colorful former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili announced on Wednesday that he has been offered the position of deputy prime minister for reform in the government of Ukraine—just the latest twist in his storied political career. Saakashvili previously served as the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, costing him his Georgian citizenship—before a fallout with the former Ukrainian president cost him his Ukrainian citizenship. His status as a Ukrainian was later reinstated when President Volodymyr Zelensky came to power last year.

Wherever Saakashvili goes, drama is never far behind—so add some popcorn to your lockdown stockpile.

That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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