When the United Arab Emirates paid over $1.3 million for a powerful and stealthy iPhone hacking tool in 2016, the monarchy’s spies—and the American mercenary hackers they hired—put it to immediate use.
The tool exploited a flaw in Apple’s iMessage app to enable hackers to completely take over a victim’s iPhone. It was used against hundreds of targets in a vast campaign of surveillance and espionage whose victims included geopolitical rivals, dissidents, and human rights activists.
Documents filed by the US Justice Department on Tuesday detail how the sale was facilitated by a group of American mercenaries working for Abu Dhabi, without legal permission from Washington to do so. But the case documents do not reveal who sold the powerful iPhone exploit to the Emiratis.
Two sources with knowledge of the matter have confirmed to MIT Technology Review that the exploit was developed and sold by an American firm named Accuvant. It merged several years ago with another security firm, and what remains is now part of a larger company called Optiv. News of the sale sheds new light on the exploit industry as well as the role played by American companies and mercenaries in the proliferation of powerful hacking capabilities around the world.
Optiv spokesperson Jeremy Jones wrote in an email that his company has "cooperated fully with the Department of Justice" and that Optiv "is not a subject of this investigation." That's true: The subjects of the investigation are the three former US intelligence and military personnel who worked illegally with the UAE. However, Accuvant's role as exploit developer and seller was important enough to be detailed at length in Justice Department court filings.
The iMessage exploit was the primary weapon in an Emirati program called Karma, which was run by DarkMatter, an organization that posed as a private company but in fact acted as a de facto spy agency for the UAE.
Reuters reported the existence of Karma and the iMessage exploit in 2019. But on Tuesday, the US fined three former US intelligence and military personnel $1.68 million for their unlicensed work as mercenary hackers in the UAE. That activity included buying Accuvant’s tool and then directing UAE-funded hacking campaigns.
The US court documents noted that the exploits were developed and sold by American firms but did not name the hacking companies. Accuvant’s role has not been reported until now.
Accuvant was not the focus of the investigation because the sale it made was licensed and legal. A source with close knowledge of the development and sale of the exploit says that Accuvant was explicitly “directed” to make the sale of the exploit by a US intelligence agency and that the company did not know it would be used for foreign espionage. The court documents then describe manipulation of the exploit by the mercenaries to make it a more powerful tool for the UAE's purposes.
“The FBI will fully investigate individuals and companies that profit from illegal criminal cyber activity,” Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division, said in a statement. “This is a clear message to anybody, including former US government employees, who had considered using cyberspace to leverage export-controlled information for the benefit of a foreign government or a foreign commercial company—there is risk, and there will be consequences.”
Prolific exploit developer
Despite the fact that the UAE is considered a close ally of the United States, DarkMatter has been linked to cyberattacks against a range of American targets, according to court documents and whistleblowers.
Helped by American partnership, expertise, and money, DarkMatter built up the UAE’s offensive hacking capabilities over several years from almost nothing to a formidable and active operation. The group spent heavily to hire American and Western hackers to develop and sometimes direct the country’s cyber operations.
At the time of the sale, Accuvant was a research and development lab based in Denver, Colorado, that specialized in and sold iOS exploits.
“The FBI will fully investigate individuals and companies that profit from illegal criminal cyber activity. This is a clear message to anybody… there is risk, and there will be consequences.”Brandon Vorndran, FBI
A decade ago, Accuvant established a reputation as a prolific exploit developer working with bigger American military contractors and selling bugs to government customers. In an industry that typically values a code of silence, the company occasionally got public attention.
“Accuvant represents an upside to cyberwar: a booming market,” journalist David Kushner wrote in a 2013 profile of the company in Rolling Stone. It was the kind of company, he said, “capable of creating custom software that can enter outside systems and gather intelligence or even shut down a server, for which they can get paid up to $1 million.”
Optiv largely exited the hacking industry following the series of mergers and acquisitions, but Accuvant’s alumni network is strong—and still working on exploits. Two high-profile employees went on to cofound Grayshift, an iPhone hacking company known for its skills at unlocking devices.
Accuvant sold hacking exploits to multiple customers in both governments and the private sector, including the United States and its allies—and this exact iMessage exploit was also sold simultaneously to multiple other customers, MIT Technology Review has learned.
The iMessage exploit is one of several critical flaws in the messaging app that have been discovered and exploited over recent years. A 2020 update to the iPhone’s operating system shipped with a complete rebuilding of iMessage security in an attempt to make it harder to target.
The new security feature, called BlastDoor, isolates the app from the rest of the iPhone and makes it more difficult to access iMessage’s memory—the main way in which attackers were able to take over a target’s phone.
iMessage is a major target of hackers, for good reason. The app is included by default on every Apple device. It accepts incoming messages from anyone who knows your number. There is no way to uninstall it, no way to inspect it, nothing a user can do to defend against this kind of threat beyond downloading every Apple security update as soon as possible.
BlastDoor did make exploiting iMessage harder, but the app is still a favorite target of hackers. On Monday, Apple disclosed an exploit that the Israeli spyware company NSO Group had reportedly used to circumvent BlastDoor protections and take over the iPhone through a different flaw in iMessage. Apple declined to comment.
Note: This story was updated to clarify the nature of the sale.
Inside the machine that saved Moore’s Law
The Dutch firm ASML spent $9 billion and 17 years developing a way to keep making denser computer chips.
The 50-year-old problem that eludes theoretical computer science
A solution to P vs NP could unlock countless computational problems—or keep them forever out of reach.
This new startup has built a record-breaking 256-qubit quantum computer
QuEra Computing, launched by physicists at Harvard and MIT, is trying a different quantum approach to tackle impossibly hard computational tasks.
The US is worried that hackers are stealing data today so quantum computers can crack it in a decade
The US government is starting a generation-long battle against the threat next-generation computers pose to encryption.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.