Can iPhone be hacked? What you should know about iOS security

Can iPhone be hacked?  What you should know about iOS security

Here are some of the most common ways an iPhone can be compromised with malware, how you can tell it’s happened to you, and how to remove a hacker from your device

Let’s be clear: If your iPhone or iPad is connected to the internet, there is a risk that it could be hacked. Sure, statistics seem to support the idea that your iOS device is pretty safe (and Apple is constantly adding new security features), but your security largely depends on how you actually use the device.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the most common ways for malware to compromise iPhones, some warning signs that your own phone may have been hacked, and how you can “fight back”.

How can an iPhone be hacked?

Sideloaded apps

One of the biggest complaints about iOS is how slow the operating system is to adopt features that have long been present on Android devices. So to overcome this, some users resort to an alternative that goes against Apple’s terms and conditions: they jailbreak the phone.

This bypasses the built-in restrictions on content from Apple’s App Store, allowing users to sideload apps and widgets from third-party stores. Sideloading – the act of getting an app from an unofficial store – can also be done by downloading it directly through a website on Safari or another browser.

Although it is debatable whether or not to allow access to content from third-party stores, as of now only the applications on the App Store have been officially reviewed for security. Meanwhile, the risks are clear: when you install an unverified app, you give it unlimited access to your device.

Fake apps in the App Store

Apple’s official store on your iOS device is generally known to offer safe content. Any application made available on the App Store has gone through a process that checked for errors, privacy policy concerns, identification of third-party ad providers, and licensing requirements.

But sometimes a bad app slips through the safety net. And a simple spam for calendar events, a malicious link shared via messaging apps, or an aggressive advertisement displayed while browsing a website can open the App Store and suggest you install one of these inaccurately rated apps.

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And because they are in the official store, there is no reason to doubt their authenticity, right? Error. Such a dodgy app will try to make money by, for example, selling you something you don’t need (and doesn’t work) using Apple’s own in-app purchase system.

Calendar invitations

The iPhone Calendar app may seem like the safest place on your device, but it’s actually one of the most common ways to distribute malware on iOS. Just like anyone you just met can send you a calendar invite for coffee later that week, hackers can do the same!

These unwanted invitations can come from leaked email addresses or from you after you inadvertently subscribe to calendar events on shady websites. Remember that scams are designed to get people to fall for them. So in case you do, unsubscribe from your calendar and never click on individual events you don’t know and trust as they will lead you to more spam.

Figure 1. The scam site asks a user to subscribe to calendar events on iOS

Configuration profiles

Back in 2010, Apple made it possible to add configuration profiles to its iOS devices. In this way, companies can manage a number of specific settings and functions on their iPhones, as well as install apps used internally that do not need to be publicly available in the App Store.

While this is a useful tool for legitimate business and school use, hackers learned to take advantage of this feature. As usual, through phishing attacks and social engineering traps, hackers can lead their victims to click on a link that will install a malicious configuration profile, giving them access to Wi-Fi, VPN settings, app management or internet traffic.

More than just the privacy and security risks posed by these types of threats, most users are unaware of profile management options, giving hackers the time they need to explore and exploit user passwords, steal banking information, or even install spyware.

Figure 2. Malicious cryptocurrency wallet app installed via a configuration profile

The risk is real

If getting spam in your calendar sounds like a small risk, someone tracking you can sound a lot worse. But the most vicious thing about this type of hacking is that they are all interconnected. What was initially a small spam event invitation can easily escalate into installing a sideloaded app or a malicious configuration profile.

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Remember that the phone can also fall into the wrong hands without you noticing. This can be particularly sensitive in the context of violent relationships. Stalkerware – a tool used to gain remote access to your devices – can be installed on your phone without your consent. Attackers can then target your personal information on iCloud, track your location or access your photos and notes.

How can I find out if my iPhone has been hacked?

If you suspect or fear that your iPhone has been hacked, there are a few things you can check first:

  • Battery levels: Batteries naturally wear down over time. However, if your device is only a few months old, battery draining too quickly could be a sign of unexpected background activity. Check which apps are using battery and your battery health to discard this option.
  • Data: If you’re not a heavy user of your cellular data plan, but you’re still hitting your limits very quickly, there’s a chance that your iPhone has been hacked. Hidden software on your device can use your data to relay information. However, be aware that you are most likely giving permission for an app to run in the background.
  • Strange things”: Is there an app on your iPhone that you don’t remember downloading? Or maybe an app that seems duplicated? These can be clear signs that your device has been hacked. Attackers may attempt to install this content on your phone through a sideloaded app, and even if you’re tech-savvy, you may be vulnerable to these tricks.

Figure 3. One of the two apps is a fraud (source: ESET Research)

How do I remove a hacker from iPhone?

  1. Check if your device is jailbroken. Whether you have been hacked or are being stalked, you may not be aware that your phone has been jailbroken by someone else. As Apple now allows apps to be removed from the home screen, use the search function to find jailbreaking apps like Cydia or Sileo. If you find them, restore your device to factory settings.
  2. Delete unnecessary apps and configuration profiles. If you have apps you don’t use, like wallpaper or weather apps, delete them. Although they are safe, they can track and sell your data to third parties. Also remove any configuration profiles not installed by your organization or school.
  3. Check the app’s settings. Take the time to use the Settings app to go through all your installed apps and check the permissions you give them. Find out which apps you’ve given permission to use your location, and remove consent from apps that don’t need it.
  4. Delete content and settings on iPhone or iPad. Make sure you have a backup of your photos and documents before doing a full device restore. When you turn it back on, it will be clean of malware and you can simply sign in with your Apple ID to make it yours again.
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Figure 4. Giving an iPhone a fresh start

Can I prevent myself from being hacked?

Anyone can fall victim to a cyberattack, but you can minimize your risk by following a few simple steps.

  1. Do not jailbreak your iPhone. Resist the temptation. There may be a lot of cool features out there, but the dangers aren’t worth it. Additionally, jailbreak voids your device’s warranty!
  2. Do not install third-party apps. There are thousands of apps in the official store. If you choose an iPhone, try to stick to what is safe for you and your device.
  3. Be on the lookout for phishing scams. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you won’t fall for scams; we all do. So beware of scam emails that ask for personal information and can steal account credentials.
  4. Do not open links from people you do not know and recognize. This is a simple piece of advice, but it will help you avoid a lot of headaches.
  5. Use multi-factor authentication. If hackers take over your phone, stop them from attacking your other accounts. Add extra steps to protect your credentials.
  6. Use a VPN. It will strengthen privacy and data protection, especially if you use a public Wi-Fi network.
  7. Always keep your phone updated. Make sure you are using the latest iOS update. Apple regularly adds new versions with new features and, more importantly, security updates to keep your devices safe.

Finally, no matter how likely you are to be hacked, it’s important to understand the risks and take a few simple precautions. Avoid jailbreaking your device, refrain from clicking on unknown links. and using multi-factor authentication wherever available will go a long way to protecting your device and your data.

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