iOS 16 getting ‘extreme’ Lockdown Mode — what it means for your iPhone

Lockdown Mode explainer on an iPhone
(Image credit: Future)

In an effort to provide additional protection for high-risk individuals, Apple has unveiled its new Lockdown Mode for iPhones, iPads and Macs.

The company’s new initiative is designed to help protect those who may be personally targeted by sophisticated cyber threats like spyware. It does this by limiting certain capabilities that can be exploited by state-sponsored hackers when launching cyberattacks.

Lockdown Mode will be available later this fall and will coincide with the release of iOS 16, iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura.

While Apple claims Lockdown Mode is the first major capability of its kind, Google also offers similar protections through its Advanced Protection Program which is designed for high-risk individuals like politicians, business executives and journalists. However, the search giant’s offering is mainly designed to protect against phishing attempts and harmful downloads. It’s worth noting that Google’s Advanced Protection Program also requires the use of a security key to log into your Google account.

Apple head of security engineering and architecture Ivan Krstić provided further insight on the kinds of people the new initiative was created for and the types of threats it aims to stop in a press release, saying: 

“Apple makes the most secure mobile devices on the market. Lockdown Mode is a groundbreaking capability that reflects our unwavering commitment to protecting users from even the rarest, most sophisticated attacks. While the vast majority of users will never be the victims of highly targeted cyberattacks, we will work tirelessly to protect the small number of users who are."

How Lockdown Mode protects your Apple devices

An iPhone receiving a call, with the user about to press the Accept button

(Image credit: DenPhotos / Shutterstock)

When it launches this fall Lockdown Mode won’t be for everyone, as it provides an extreme level of security for select users who are targeted by organizations like the NSO Group (which developed the Predator spyware) because of who they are or what they do.

Turning on Lockdown Mode on your iPhone, iPad or Mac hardens device defenses further and strictly limits certain functions to minimize vulnerabilities which can be exploited by spyware.

Lockdown Mode will include a number of protections at launch, and Apple plans to build on the initiative over time. In fact, the company has created a brand-new category within its bug bounty program to provide researchers with a maximum of $2 million in rewards if they’re able to bypass Lockdown Mode.

If you do decide to enable Lockdown Mode, you won’t be able to access other attachment types besides images in Messages, and some features (like link previews) will be disabled. Likewise, certain complex web technologies including just-in-time (JIT) JavaScript compilation will be blocked in your browser. 

Apple services such as incoming invitations and service requests including FaceTime calls will also be blocked if you haven’t previously sent the person trying to contact you a call or request. 

On the hardware side, wired connections with a computer or any other accessory will be blocked when your iPhone is locked. At the same time, configuration profiles cannot be installed and you won’t be able to enroll in mobile device management (MDM) while Lockdown Mode is enabled.

Taking the fight to the NSO Group

In addition to its new Lockdown Mode initiative, Apple is also taking the fight to the NSO Group personally using its large cash reserves. 

The iPhone maker has established a new $10 million grant to help support any organization that investigates, exposes or prevents highly targeted cyberattacks. This includes spyware created by private companies on the behalf of hostile governments. 

The grant itself will be made to the Ford Foundation's Dignity and Justice Fund. Ford Foundation Tech and Society Program director Lori McGlinchey offered further insight on the threat posed by the global spyware trade, saying:

“The global spyware trade targets human rights defenders, journalists, and dissidents; it facilitates violence, reinforces authoritarianism, and supports political repression. The Ford Foundation is proud to support this extraordinary initiative to bolster civil society research and advocacy to resist mercenary spyware. We must build on Apple’s commitment, and we invite companies and donors to join the Dignity and Justice Fund and bring additional resources to this collective fight.”

Now that Apple is taking action to prevent the development and spread of spyware, expect other tech giants like Google and Microsoft to follow suit.

Anthony Spadafora
Senior Editor Security and Networking

Anthony Spadafora is the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to password managers and the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. Before joining the team, he wrote for ITProPortal while living in Korea and later for TechRadar Pro after moving back to the US. Based in Houston, Texas, when he’s not writing Anthony can be found tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.