Can an iPhone Be Hacked?

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Jun 25, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Jun 25, 2021

While iOS security gets a lot of well-deserved praise, the Apple marketing hype of “unhackable” isn’t 100 percent true.

Even though iOS security is excellent and Android security is more vulnerable, you shouldn’t rely on Apple to protect your data all by itself. Developing good data security habits can save you a lot of grief by keeping your identity and accounts in your hands.

Can an iPhone Be Hacked?

Simple answer? Yes. All networked digital technology is technically hackable.

Detailed answer? When Apple brags about how hard it can be to hack an iPhone, it points to the iOS code and security methods. However, human error has long been the leading cause of data breaches worldwide.

When we talk about iPhone hacks, most methods look at the user as the weak link in the security chain, not the operating system. By being aware of the most effective ways of manipulating users like yourself, you can make it hard for anyone who’s not welcome to access your phone.1

How iPhones Get Hacked

There are plenty of popular methods to get around iPhone security, and most of them involve tricking the user.

Sketchy Wi-Fi Connections

We’ve all encountered suspicious public Wi-Fi networks asking for a lot of personal info upfront, followed by around 100 pages of terms and conditions. We’ve caved in desperate moments, sometimes even without using a VPN to hide our browsing history and hide our IP addresses. These are the places we most often encounter sketchy Wi-Fi networks:

  • Airports: Many airports across the U.S. have their own public Wi-Fi networks for passengers. These networks are just as insecure as any other public Wi-Fi network. Essentially, any Wi-Fi network that asks for detailed personal information or is operated by a third party raises even more red flags (we’re looking at you, Boingo!)2
  • Budget hotels/motels: The upkeep on an expansive Wi-Fi network with hundreds of unique users and private connections is costly, so many affordable hotels opt to use one open network.
  • Cafes and bars: “Free Wi-Fi” is virtually synonymous with coffee shops. While that Boingo pop-up at the airport probably raises your defenses, we’re willing to bet you don’t think twice about connecting to Starbucks’ Wi-Fi anymore.

Sketchy URLs

For anyone who still needs to hear it: never click on a link if you don’t recognize the sender or can’t verify that it comes from a trusted source. Phishing is still one of the most popular internet scam techniques and comes in various forms, like these:

  1. Emails: These phishing emails aren’t like the kind from 20 years ago, where a randomized email address would send you a 200-character link to a “free cruise.” The more successful phishing emails you might encounter do a great job of impersonating account providers like Google, Amazon, or Apple, telling you to update your password or account bio.
  2. SMS: Text messages are a more recent favorite of phishers, relying on the quantity-over-quality technique.
  3. Phone calls: Scam callers inundate U.S. phone numbers all day long. Phishing calls usually ask the target to call back about something relevant to the user, like debt restructuring, mortgages, or car payments.
  4. Social media: Social media accounts that show up as targeted ads are a new favorite phishing method, as we’re more likely to click on them.
  5. Web ads: Since the early days of the internet, sometimes clickbait ads contain adware that’s hard to remove. But scammers keep making adware because many people still click on banner or pop-up ads.
  6. Fraudulent software: The least-known phishing method, fraudulent versions of popular software tools can show up shockingly high in a Google search. Sometimes the websites offer a “free” version of paid software (although free software can be legitimate, as we’ve seen with free VPNs and free antivirus software).

Sketchy Apps

The adage for free social media platforms or apps is, “If they don’t charge you for the product, you are the product.” There’s a library’s worth of writing about how Facebook and Google sell user data. However, apps that aren’t cultural touchstones can still spy on you, especially if you permit them to do so.

Favorite targets for malware and spyware are simple apps with offerings for “free” wallpapers or ringtones, and novelty camera apps like FaceApp. Even apps from well-rated developers may still be malicious. Look out for these red flags:

  1. High power draw or overheating: If your battery heats up or drains faster while you use a particular app, it may be performing more tasks on your phone than advertised.
  2. Unnecessary permissions: A fitness-tracking iPhone app on your phone shouldn’t need access to your contacts. If it’s not taking pictures or video, an app shouldn’t need your camera and mic.
  3. Unusual mobile device behavior: If you notice a change in your device’s behavior, usability, or software interface after you download an app, it could be a sign of something more nefarious.

Sketchy People

Sometimes, the call may be coming from inside the house, metaphorically speaking.

  1. Stalkerware: Stalkers, abusive ex-partners, current partners, or family members can install a type of spyware sometimes referred to as “stalkerware” to track your every move and keystroke.3 Our post-breakup safety report outlines how, even in many non-abusive scenarios, an ex-partner can be a security risk. Around 22 percent of both men and women reported a financial security breach from an ex, for example.
  2. Direct data transfer: A much easier attack to carry out is stealing data manually. If you leave your phone unattended and unlocked, individuals with bad intentions can hook your phone up to another device and download files and data directly. Direct data transfer is more common with abusive partners or family members because of their frequent proximity to you and, thus, access to your device.

Sketchy Governments

Sketchy governments are a hacking threat primarily for journalists and political activists in undemocratic countries, which leads to greater VPN usage. However, historically oppressed peoples are at much higher risk of government surveillance than the average citizen.4

For the average American user, there might be a few scenarios when you need to worry about a government entity stealing your personal data:

  1. Trip to a totalitarian state: A foreigner visiting China might realize that everything is easier to navigate with social media and e-commerce apps like WeChat, Alipay, or QQ. Hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens use them every day. As a result, these apps are targets of internet censorship and broad government surveillance.5
  2. High-profile activism: Saying you stand with Hong Kong has become a famous rallying cry around the world, but it’s unlikely to make you a target of the Chinese Communist Party. However, if you’re Vladimir Putin critic Bill Browder, you should expect some state-sponsored hacking attempts to come your way.6

What You Can Do To Stop an iPhone Hack

We want to make sure, first and foremost, that you never experience an iPhone hack. However, if you do get hacked, we want you to know how to spot it and what you can do about it. Prevention, recognition, and response are key.

VPN for Phone
VPN for Phone

How To Prevent an iPhone Hacking

We know the long list of threats above seems daunting, so the main question we have to ask ourselves is, “What can I do to prevent my iPhone from getting hacked?”

  • Install updates as soon as possible. Some updates are rushed fixes for newly discovered security vulnerabilities. Occasionally, you’ll have to deal with annoyances like slow loading times or minor glitches when you first install updates. However, these minor inconveniences are preferable to someone getting into your phone and stealing your identity.
  • Set up two-factor authentication. Set up two-factor authentication to protect your Apple and iCloud accounts from unauthorized users. Multifactor authentication in the form of biometrics is even better!
  • Use a VPN when on public Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi leaves you vulnerable to anyone who has access to the same network. By using a VPN on your iPhone when connected to public Wi-Fi, you can protect your iPhone when it’s most vulnerable to random hackers.
  • Use a strong password. Make sure your secure password is a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters. It should also be unique to your Apple ID and contain at least 12 characters for maximum password security.
  • Don’t offer personal info without confirming legitimacy. Investigate the requesting organization’s website to confirm it’s legit before sending along personally identifiable information.
  • Set up a passcode. Once you take these steps, if you put your phone down for a predetermined period of time, it will require a passcode to open it up.
    1. Go to Settings.
    2. Tap “Touch ID & Passcode.”
    3. Tap “Turn Passcode On.”
    4. Tap “Passcode Options.”
    5. Select “Create a Custom Alphanumeric/Numeric Code.”
  • Set up Find My iPhone. This feature helps you locate your phone easily in the event that you lose it.
    1. Go to Settings.
    2. Tap your name.
    3. Tap “Find My.”
    4. Tap “Find My iPhone.”
    5. Tap the switch icon to turn it on.
    6. To see your iPhone even when it’s offline, tap the switch next to “Find My Network.”
    7. To send Apple the last location of your phone when the battery is low, tap the switch next to “Send Last Location.”7
  • Turn off Bluetooth when not in use. Hackers can discover and spoof other devices you’ve connected to before and gain access to your iPhone.8
    1. Go to Settings.
    2. Tap “Bluetooth.”
    3. Tap the Switch icon to turn it off.
Find My iPhone
Find My iPhone

How To Recognize if a Hack May Have Occurred

When a user’s phone has been hacked, there are usually some telltale signs something is amiss:

  • The phone is constantly hot and low on battery.
  • The phone is sluggish to load webpages, regardless of the connection quality.
  • You don’t remember making certain calls or texts.
  • Your contacts say they’re getting weird messages from you.9

Always do your research before concluding you’ve been hacked. Sometimes, a new iOS update is the culprit. Or maybe your iPhone is more than two years old, so your battery is now on the edge of planned obsolescence.

How To Respond to a Hack

It’s difficult to give specific advice without knowing the exact phone hack that occurred. However, here are some basic post-hack cybersecurity tips:

  1. If sketchy Wi-Fi is to blame, then disconnect and forget the network.
  2. If a sketchy URL might be the issue, remove anything downloaded after you went to that web address.
  3. If the trouble comes from a sketchy app, uninstall and delete the app, then update your phone.
  4. If your iCloud or Apple ID is compromised, contact Apple directly at 1-800-275-2273 on a different device, or visit an Apple store in person.

Recap

You are easier, quicker, and cheaper to manipulate than iOS code. Be a reasonable skeptic on your iPhone and the internet in general. Don’t click a link from an unverified source. Don’t offer private information to any entity you can’t confirm as legitimate based on information from their website. Finally, don’t use apps that ask for unnecessary permissions.

Simple security measures go a long way.

FAQs

Here are answers to your most pressing questions about iPhone hacks.

  • What does it look like when your iPhone is hacked?

    There isn’t one example of what it looks like when your iPhone is hacked. You could get strange or inappropriate pop-ups or see apps you don’t recognize on your phone. Your battery might drain quickly, and your phone might show higher data usage. The biggest giveaway would be your contacts receiving texts or calls from you that you didn’t make.

  • Can iPhones get hacked from websites?

    iPhones can get hacked from websites, which is why it’s best to use antivirus software to scan for malicious sites.

  • Can an iPhone be hacked remotely?

    An iPhone can be hacked remotely through iOS vulnerabilities. However, it’s more likely that it’ll be hacked through malicious software or physical access, as programming-based hacking is the most difficult to carry out.

  • Can someone hack my iPhone by calling me?

    No one can hack your iPhone just by calling you. However, a scammer might call and fool you into giving up personal information, which they could then use to hack your phone or steal your identity.

Citations
  1. Business Insider. (2021). Can an iPhone be hacked? A breakdown of common hacks and cyber hygiene best practices.
    businessinsider.com/can-iphone-be-hacked

  2. Forbes. (2019). Why You Should Never Use Free Airport Wi-Fi. forbes.com/sites/suzannerowankelleher/2019/09/24/why-you-should-never-use-free-airport-wi-fi

  3. Coalition Against Stalkerware. What is stalkerware?
    stopstalkerware.org

  4. MIT Technology Review. (2021). How China turned a prize-winning iPhone hack against the Uyghurs.
    technologyreview.com/2021/05/06/1024621/china-apple-spy-uyghur-hacker-tianfu

  5. The Wall Street Journal. (2020). WeChat Becomes a Powerful Surveillance Tool Everywhere in China.
    wsj.com/articles/wechat-becomes-a-powerful-surveillance-tool-everywhere-in-china-11608633003

  6. The New Yorker. (2018). How Bill Browder Became Russia’s Most Wanted Man.
    newyorker.com/magazine/2018/08/20/how-bill-browder-became-russias-most-wanted-man

  7. Apple Support. Set up Find My on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac.
    support.apple.com/en-us/HT210400

  8. Federal Communications Commission. Wireless Connections and Bluetooth Security Tips.
    fcc.gov/consumers/guides/how-protect-yourself-online

  9. Norton. (2021). How can I tell if my phone has been hacked?
    us.norton.com/internetsecurity-malware-is-my-phone-hacked.html