How to detect and remove malware from an iPhone
Despite their reputation for security, iPhones are not immune from malware attacks. IT and users should learn the signs of mobile malware and the steps to take when they appear.
Mobile devices such as iPhones can create new security concerns for organizations, and malware comes with unique considerations on these endpoints as well.
Apple devices are known for their strong encryption, secure boot process and other security-centered features that can help protect sensitive corporate data and end-user privacy. While these features have made Apple devices appealing to organizations concerned with data privacy and security, mobile malware is still a threat that IT administrators must take into consideration with enterprise iPhones.
The various types of malware attacks that have long been a problem for desktop computers, such as ransomware and spyware, can occur on smartphones as well, and there are also newer attack vectors, such as smishing (SMS phishing) that specifically target mobile endpoints. To avoid the damage that malware can cause, IT teams should understand how to prevent, detect and remove malware on iPhones.
Are iPhones susceptible to malware?
Apple devices have traditionally had a reputation for being less susceptible to malware than other OSes. This is primarily due to two factors: the closed nature of the Apple ecosystem and the company's strong focus on security. By keeping users within a proprietary platform, Apple can tightly control what code can and cannot be downloaded or run on its devices, ensuring that users can only install vetted and approved apps on iPhones, iPads and Macs. This approach, combined with the company's strict guidelines and policies for app developers, has helped prevent malware from being distributed through the official App Store.
Second, Apple strongly focuses on security and has built many security features into its devices and software. For example, iOS and macOS have built-in encryption, secure boot processes and containerization to help protect against security threats, such as malware. Apple has also built enterprise tools, such as Automated Device Enrollment, to ensure devices are always managed and supervision, which gives IT admins the highest privileges on corporate-owned devices for device management and security.
The close-knit nature of Apple's ecosystem might provide some degree of protection against certain types of attacks, but it is not foolproof. For example, there have been instances where malware authors have exploited vulnerabilities in iOS or other software components to gain access to user data. Just last year, Apple released iOS 16.1.2, which patched a zero-day kernel vulnerability that could allow a malicious application to execute code with kernel privileges, including the ability to grant a remote user control over the device.
Although Apple devices continue to have a strong reputation for security, users and IT admins need to take steps to protect their devices -- such as using strong passwords, keeping software up to date and investing in mobile device management (MDM) tools and mobile threat detection -- to prevent malware and enable admins to remediate any threats. With these measures, organizations can ensure that corporate data and devices are secure.
What are the signs of malware on iPhones?
Users and IT should pay attention to iPhone and iPad performance, as many issues can appear because of a malware infection. Look out for signs such as odd notifications and erratic behavior on mobile devices to detect malware before it becomes a larger issue.
One of the telltale signs of malware on an iPhone is the presence of unfamiliar apps or programs. Malicious hackers can install malware to access a user's device, steal data and even hijack accounts. If users notice any applications that they did not install, the phone might be compromised.
Unfamiliar messages being received or sent
For malware to send text messages, it must get access to the device's messaging system and permissions, which can be challenging for cybercriminals to do without the user's knowledge or consent. However, through methods such as social engineering, malicious actors can find ways to access users' iCloud information, granting them access to services such as iMessage. If a user notices unfamiliar messages being sent or received on their device, it is important to investigate the source and possible infection.
Excessive data usage
Another sign of a malware infection on an iPhone is excessive data usage. Malware often has to send information back to its command-and-control server, resulting in high data consumption levels. If a user notices unusually high data usage, it might be time to check if any malicious programs have been installed onto the device. Some MDM systems can monitor data usage and give IT admins tools and reports on data usage.
Unusual battery drain
Malware can also cause significant battery drain because it runs in the background, consuming energy without the user's knowledge. If a phone's battery is draining more quickly than usual, it might be a good idea to check for any suspicious software running in the background.
Unexpected notifications from unknown sources or applications can also indicate malware presence on an iPhone. Some malicious programs are designed to send out spam messages and pop-ups, so if users spot anything unusual coming through, it could mean that the device has a malware infection.
Erratic performance and crashes
Malware can cause iPhones to behave unexpectedly. The device might abruptly restart or shut down, and apps might crash or freeze, even if they've been working without issues in the past.
How to secure iPhones from malware
If an iPhone shows signs that it's infected with malware, it's crucial to take action to remove the malicious software and protect the device from current and future threats. Organizations can take a few different steps to eliminate malware and keep corporate and personal data secure.
Check whether the iPhone is jailbroken
While jailbreaking has become more difficult to do in recent versions of iOS, if users are motivated enough, they can usually find a way. Jailbreaking a device can lead to many different security concerns, as it gives malware easy access to the device. To check if an iPhone is jailbroken, look for any unfamiliar applications on the device. Additionally, check under Settings > General > VPN and Device Management to see if any unknown profiles are installed on the device. IT admins can also use MDM tools to monitor an iPhone's jailbroken status and automate compliance policies to quarantine devices until they are remediated.
Update mobile devices regularly
It's important to make sure that users have the latest software installed on their devices and that all applications are updated to the most recent versions. This helps protect devices from any newly discovered vulnerabilities and exploits. IT teams can use an MDM platform to enforce OS version compliance and push essential security updates to endpoints.
Monitor and take control with MDM and mobile threat detection
Securing and managing devices with MDM enables the enforcement of security policies and compliance settings and provides tools to help monitor health status and reporting. Organizations can also use mobile threat detection tools -- including Lookout, Zimperium, Microsoft Defender for Endpoint and Bitdefender -- to identify and prevent threats by scanning for malicious apps, network attacks and other vulnerabilities on a device in real time. Look for tools that provide real-time protection, detection of malicious websites and links, and other security features.
Educate and train end users
While MDM can do a lot to bar employees from making mistakes that enable malware to spread, end users still play a role in helping to keep their devices secure. Provide cybersecurity training to educate users on mobile security best practices and how to spot untrustworthy applications and websites.
End users should know to be especially wary of emails and messages, including iMessages, claiming to be from a legitimate source that asks them to click on a link or download an attachment. These could be phishing attempts and can put devices at risk of malware infection.
Make sure connections are secure
Only connect to trusted sources when accessing public Wi-Fi networks. Do not share any information or access any sensitive data when connected to an insecure network. Additionally, IT admins can use MDM to build secure per-app VPN connections. This feature enables an organization to configure a VPN connection for specific apps on managed devices.
Enable two-factor authentication
Two-factor authentication is a security measure that requires users to provide two forms of authentication -- typically, a password and a verification code -- to access their accounts or devices. This provides an additional security layer and helps prevent unauthorized access, even if a password is compromised.
Monitor device activity
Keep an eye on what apps are running. IT admins can use MDM to help generate reports around device application inventory and ensure application compliance. Additionally, many MDM systems can integrate into mobile threat detection and other security tools, which enables them to quarantine devices based on how the device or applications are behaving and any potential threats.
If malware is still present, admins might have to wipe the iPhone with a factory reset. This reverts the device to its factory settings and erases whatever the source of the malware might be.