Apple warns Thai activists 'state-sponsored attackers' may have targeted iPhones

Those who had their iPhones targeted by "state-sponsored attackers" are perceived as being critical of the Thai government.
Those who had their iPhones targeted by "state-sponsored attackers" are perceived as being critical of the Thai government.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Apple Inc issued alert messages on Wednesday (Nov 24) to at least six activists and researchers who have been critical of Thailand's government, warning it believed their iPhones had been targeted by "state-sponsored attackers", according to activists and the alerts reviewed by Reuters.

Apple and Thailand's Digital Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asked about the messages from Apple, Mr Anucha Burapachaisri, deputy secretary-general to the prime minister, said: "If it is authentic, the Digital Economy and Society Ministry will look into this."

Dr Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Bangkok's Thammasat University, said he had received two emails from Apple warning it believed his iPhone and iCloud accounts had been targeted, along with a "threat notification" on his Apple account.

Researcher Sarinee Achananuntakul and Thai activist Yingcheep Atchanont of Legal Monitoring group iLaw said they had received similar emails, while a rapper, a political activist, and a politician opposed to the government separately posted screenshots of the same email on their social media accounts.

All are perceived as being critical of the Thai government.

The messages warned "if your device is compromised by a state-sponsored attacker, they may be able to remotely access your sensitive data, communications, or even the camera and microphone."

Writer Sarinee Achavanuntakul wrote that it was terrifying the hack had exploited a system vulnerability to embed "spyware into the iPhone itself without the owner’s knowledge".

Mr Dechathorn “Hockhacker” Bamrungmuang, from the Rap Against Dictatorship group, posted a screen grab of the message to his Facebook page late on Wednesday.

The message warned: "These attackers are likely targeting you individually because of who you are or what you do." 

Mr Dechathorn, who has previously been arrested for sedition but was later released, said he was "appalled" by the hacking attempt.

"We (Rap Against Dictatorship) will probably write a song about this," he told AFP. "I think the state won’t stop at this."

Two political activists in Ghana, an opposition politician in Uganda, as well as a dozen journalists from Salvadoran media reported later on Wednesday having received similar warning messages from Apple, according to social media posts reviewed by Reuters.

Apple on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Israeli cyber firm NSO Group and its parent company OSY Technologies for alleged surveillance and targeting of US Apple users with its Pegasus spyware.

In a statement on Tuesday, Apple said that the NSO group had created "state-sponsored surveillance technology" that had been aimed at "very small number of users".

It was not immediately clear in Apple's alerts on Wednesday whether the company believed Thais were being targeted by Pegasus.

Internet security watchdog group Citizen Lab identified in 2018 a Pegasus spyware operator active within Thailand.

Thailand's government is still led by the architects of a 2014 coup, who remain in power after a 2019 election that its rivals say was stacked in the military's favour.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the coup leader, has denied allegations the military changed rules to ensure it remained in control. He has faced months of anti-government protests.

As well as calls for greater democracy, the government has also been criticised over its management of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.