In recent years, iOS malware threats have been on the rise. Malicious software targeting iPhones and other Apple devices was once rare, but hackers have increasingly taken aim at iOS as its popularity has grown (Apple 2023). The discovery of GoldPickaxe marks a dangerous new development – the first known case of iPhone malware in the wild. Unlike prior proof-of-concept iOS malware, GoldPickaxe is fully operational and actively targeting victims.

Discovery of GoldPickaxe

The newly discovered iPhone malware GoldPickaxe was first detected by researchers at the cybersecurity firm Group-IB. The malware appears to be an iOS version of the Android Trojan GoldDigger, exhibiting similar information stealing capabilities and representing an evolution in cross-platform malware development.

GoldDigger has been active on Android devices since 2018, targeting users predominantly in Russia. GoldPickaxe seems to build on the codebase of GoldDigger, while shifting focus to iPhone users instead. The discovery highlights the growing security threats targeting iOS platforms and the need for continued vigilance.

Capabilities and Targets

GoldPickaxe is a dangerous threat with a wide range of data theft capabilities. It is designed to steal users’ sensitive personal information, including biometric data like fingerprints and facial recognition profiles. The Trojan can also access SMS text messages, allowing it to collect private communications and sensitive codes like banking passcodes sent via text.

In addition, GoldPickaxe can intercept users’ web activity, viewing browsing history, logins, and other information entered into websites and apps. This grants the hackers access to a wealth of private data.

The Trojan also employs social engineering, posing as bank representatives and tricking victims into providing personal information through phone calls. By appearing legitimate, the scam is quite difficult for users to detect.

GoldPickaxe is targeting victims predominantly in the countries of Vietnam and Thailand. Though it has the technical capabilities to infect iOS users worldwide, the hackers have focused efforts on distributing the Trojan in these specific Southeast Asian regions currently.

Distribution Methods

GoldPickaxe is distributed primarily through malicious iOS mobile device management (MDM) profiles that trick users into installing them. Once installed, these rogue MDM profiles allow the malware to take control of the device and steal sensitive user data.

The malware originally began spreading through Apple’s TestFlight beta testing system. TestFlight allows developers to distribute beta versions of apps to testers. However, GoldPickaxe took advantage of this by masquerading as a legitimate app in TestFlight. This allowed it to be installed on thousands of devices. Fortunately, Apple detected this behavior and quickly put measures in place to stop the malware’s distribution through TestFlight.

Protection Measures

There are several measures iPhone users can take to protect themselves against malware like GoldPickaxe:

First and foremost, only install apps from the official Apple App Store. Avoid downloading apps from third-party stores or websites, as they may contain malware. The App Store has security checks in place to help prevent malicious apps from being distributed.

Second, avoid installing third-party mobile device management (MDM) profiles unless absolutely necessary and you can verify the source. MDM profiles allow device controls and configurations to be set remotely. GoldPickaxe initially spread through malicious MDM profiles.

Additionally, exercise caution in sharing personal or sensitive information over phone calls. GoldPickaxe has been reported to trick victims into providing personal details by posing as bank representatives over the phone.

Finally, be sure to keep your iPhone software up-to-date. Regularly updating to the latest iOS version ensures you have the newest security patches that fix vulnerabilities and prevent malware. Go to Settings > General > Software Update to check for and install the latest iOS updates.

Expert Perspective

Security researchers have emphasized the seriousness of the GoldPickaxe threat and the sophistication it represents. As Vadim Bublikov, head of mobile security at Group-IB, explained, “The GoldPickaxe case is a very alarming sign that iOS threats are becoming more advanced, and cybercriminals are expanding their toolsets for monetizing iOS infections.”

The implications of GoldPickaxe are concerning because it shows that iOS malware is catching up in capability to Android malware. Thomas Reed, director of Mac and mobile at Malwarebytes, noted that “iOS malware continues to become more and more sophisticated and functional as time goes on.”

Going forward, experts predict that iOS malware will only increase in prevalence. As Reed stated, “Where Android led, iOS follows. iOS malware will continue to increase in sophistication, frequency, and capabilities.” Consequently, users will need to become more vigilant about security practices for their iPhones.

Experts also emphasized this threat reinforces the importance of only installing apps from the official App Store. Downloading apps outside the App Store via sideloading opens users up to potential malware infection. As Brian Krebs, security expert, advised, “Sideloading apps should be avoided at all costs.”

Apple’s Response

When news of the GoldPickaxe Trojan emerged, Apple took swift action to contain its spread and warn potentially affected users. The company worked quickly to block the malware’s distribution through the TestFlight system by implementing new security review procedures for beta apps. Apple also began notifying users who may have received the infected MDM profiles, urging them to delete the profiles immediately.

Additionally, Apple issued a security alert about GoldPickaxe on its Taiwan and Thailand support pages, warning users to only install apps and profiles from trusted sources. The company advised users to be cautious of unknown profiles, and provided instructions for identifying and removing suspicious MDM profiles.

To further protect users, Apple initiated efforts to identify those already infected by GoldPickaxe. The company’s security engineers developed detection mechanisms to find compromised devices. Apple then directly contacted victims of the malware to provide removal assistance and security recommendations.

User Recommendations

There are several steps iPhone users should take to protect themselves against malware like GoldPickaxe:

Keep your iPhone software up-to-date by installing the latest iOS updates as soon as they become available. Software updates often include security patches that prevent malware from exploiting vulnerabilities in older versions of iOS (Source).

Only install apps from the official Apple App Store, and be cautious of apps asking for unnecessary permissions or sensitive data. The App Store reviews apps for security issues (Source).

Avoid sideloading apps or installing third-party mobile device management (MDM) profiles, as these methods bypass the App Store review process. MDM profiles were one distribution method for GoldPickaxe (Source).

Use security software from trusted vendors to scan for malware and detect compromised accounts or data breaches. Examples include Lookout, Norton, and McAfee mobile security apps.

Be vigilant of phishing attempts trying to trick you into entering your Apple ID, passwords, or financial information. Do not share sensitive data over phone calls from untrusted parties.

If you suspect your iPhone has been compromised, reset it to factory settings. This will wipe the device and remove any malware present (Source).

Future Outlook

The discovery of GoldPickaxe signals that iOS threats are likely to persist and evolve over time. As Apple continues to grow its global user base, iOS will remain an attractive target for cybercriminals seeking to steal personal data and credentials.

New attack vectors to watch out for include social engineering tactics, modified developer tools, and exploits targeting iOS vulnerabilities. Users should stay vigilant against phishing attempts and prompts to download apps or profiles outside the App Store. Apple and security firms will need to identify and patch iOS weaknesses that could enable malware infiltration.

Overall, the cybersecurity cat-and-mouse game between Apple and iOS attackers is expected to continue. Users should keep their devices updated, exercise caution around third-party apps and profiles, and consider using security software to detect potential threats. With vigilance and safe practices, the worst impacts of iOS malware can be avoided despite the growing threat landscape.


The discovery of GoldPickaxe highlights the continually evolving threat landscape in mobile security. This first known iPhone Trojan leverages sophisticated techniques like biometric theft and social engineering to target iOS users predominantly in Southeast Asia. While Apple managed to block the TestFlight distribution method, attackers are likely to find new ways to spread such malware.

It’s critical that iPhone owners stay vigilant against such emerging threats. Only install apps from the official App Store, avoid sideloading random profiles which can contain malware, and be wary of any unsolicited calls or messages asking for personal information. Keeping iOS up-to-date provides important security patches as well. With proper precautions, users can enjoy the safety that Apple’s walled garden generally provides against malware. Technical defenses combined with user awareness and caution are key to mitigating the risk that advanced Trojans like GoldPickaxe pose to our data and privacy.

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