iSpy: Latest report says NSA has backdoor access to iPhones

The last (we think) NSA spying revelation of the year is a doozy: The agency reportedly has had backdoor access to Apple’s iPhone.

Security researcher Jacob Applebaum said Monday at a presentation in Germany that the spying agency can, among other things, intercept iPhone texts, voicemails, contact lists, and activate the phone’s microphone and camera. All this is enabled by implanted software called DROPOUTJEEP, according to leaked NSA documents dated October 2008 — so it’s unclear whether the access continues. As we wrote yesterday, Applebaum and German magazine Der Spiegel revealed the many things the elite hacking units of the NSA can do, and apparently exploiting the iPhone is one of them.

Applebaum also raised a big question: He said that because the NSA claims a 100 percent success rate in putting spyware on iOS devices, he wonders what part Apple plays in it. “Either [the NSA] have a huge collection of exploits that work against Apple products, meaning they are hoarding information about critical systems that American companies produce, and sabotaging them, or Apple sabotaged it themselves. Do you think Apple helped them with that? I hope Apple will clarify that.”

Apple released a statement today, saying it was not aware of Dropout Jeep, and that it “has never worked with the NSA to create a backdoor in any of our products, including iPhone.” It also said, “whenever we hear about attempts to undermine Apple’s industry-leading security, we thoroughly investigate and take appropriate steps to protect our customers.”

It’s just another example of a Silicon Valley company being on the defensive. As we wrote yesterday, networking giant Cisco, which was mentioned in the Spiegel report, denied working with the government on “back doors” and said it would launch an investigation.

The hits just keep coming for tech companies. The documents leaked by former tech government contractor Edward Snowden have revealed that the government has accessed our phone calls; accessed Internet user data; intercepted Google and Yahoo Internet traffic; and more. Many of the tech companies have reacted with indignation; have said they only turn over information when legally compelled to do so; have demanded that the government give them permission to be more transparent about their compliance. As we’ve said before, the tech companies are in a heck of a position: They can either admit knowledge of and cooperation with the exploits, or they have to admit they can’t fully secure their products and/or users’ information.

From Applebaum’s talk: “Some of [the tech companies] are victims, actually. … It’s important to name them so they have to go on record. I think it’s important to know who collaborated, and who didn’t collaborate.”

Has the spying saga had a material effect on tech? Recently, Cisco CEO John Chambers cited the NSA spying revelations as a factor in a slowdown in its sales in China. And Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Dearing writes: “The NSA’s version of patriotism is corroding Silicon Valley. Integrity of our products, creative freedom of talented people, and trust with our users are the casualties.”


Photo of an iPhone from Associated Press archives

Levi Sumagaysay Levi Sumagaysay (3572 Posts)

Levi Sumagaysay is editor of the combined SiliconBeat and Good Morning Silicon Valley. She also blogs and is the online producer for, the Mercury News tech website. Email: lsumagaysay (at) bayareanewsgroup (dot-com).