Pegasus is a spy software installable on devices running certain versions of iOS, Apple's mobile operating system. Discovered in August 2016 after a failed attempt at installing it on an iPhone belonging to a human rights defender, an investigation revealed details about the spyware, its abilities, and the security vulnerabilities it exploited. The installation was avoided when the defender declined to use a link that was offered on the intended device. Pegasus is capable of reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords, tracing the location of the phone, and gathering information from apps, including iMessage, Gmail, Viber, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype. Apple released version 9.3.5 of its software to fix the vulnerabilities. News of the spyware garnered significant media attention. It was called the "most sophisticated" smartphone attack ever, and became the first time in iPhone history when a remote jailbreak exploit had been detected. The company that created the spyware, NSO Group, stated that they provide "authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime". In the aftermath of the news, critics asserted that Apple's bug-bounty program, which rewards people for finding flaws in its software, might not have offered sufficient rewards to prevent exploits being sold on the black market, rather than being reported back to Apple.
Pegasus is the name of a spyware that can be installed on devices running certain versions of iOS, Apple's mobile operating system. Upon clicking on a malicious link, Pegasus secretly enables a jailbreak on the device and can read text messages, track calls, collect passwords, trace the phone location, as well as gather information from apps including (but not limited to) iMessage, Gmail, Viber, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Skype.
The vulnerabilities were found ten days before the iOS 9.3.5 update was released. Arab human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor received a text message promising "'secrets' about torture happening in prisons in the United Arab Emirates", along with a link. Mansoor sent the link to Citizen Lab. An investigation ensued with collaboration from Lookout security company that revealed that if Mansoor had followed the link, it would have jailbroken his phone on the spot and implanted the spyware into it. Citizen Lab linked the attack to a private Israeli spyware company known as NSO Group, that sells Pegasus to governments for "lawful interception", but suspicions exist that it is applied for other purposes. NSO Group is owned by an American private equity firm, Francisco Partners.
Regarding how widespread the issue was, Lookout explained in a blog post: "We believe that this spyware has been in the wild for a significant amount of time based on some of the indicators within the code" and pointed out that the code shows signs of a "kernel mapping table that has values all the way back to iOS 7".
Lookout provided details of the three vulnerabilities:
News of the spyware received significant media attention, particularly for being called the "most sophisticated" smartphone attack ever, and, for being the first time in iPhone history when a remote jailbreak exploit has been detected.
Dan Tynant of The Guardian wrote an article that featured comments from NSO Group, where they stated that they provide "authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime", although the Group told him that they had no knowledge of any incidents.
Russell Brandom of The Verge commented that Apple's bug-bounty program, which rewards people who manage to find faults in its software, maxes out at payments of $200,000, "just a fraction of the millions that are regularly spent for iOS exploits on the black market". He goes on to ask why Apple doesn't "spend its way out of security vulnerabilities?", but also writes that "as soon as [the Pegasus] vulnerabilities were reported, Apple patched them—but there are plenty of other bugs left. While spyware companies see an exploit purchase as a one-time payout for years of access, Apple’s bounty has to be paid out every time a new vulnerability pops up." Brandom also wrote; "The same researchers participating in Apple’s bug bounty could make more money selling the same finds to an exploit broker." He concluded the article by writing; "It’s hard to say how much damage might have been caused if Mansoor had clicked on the spyware link... The hope is that, when the next researcher finds the next bug, that thought matters more than the money."