Apple FaceTime Spying Bug: What You Need to Know
Apple moved quickly last night to disable an embarrassing privacy flaw that let iPhone users spy on other iPhone and Mac users via Group FaceTime. The company promised a permanent fix later this week.
Until then, you may want to disable FaceTime just as a precaution. In iOS, the off switch is in Settings > FaceTime. In macOS, you have to open FaceTime, then select "Turn FaceTime Off" from the menu bar.
Somebody -- a teenager, according to one report -- discovered that if you made a FaceTime call from an iPhone running iOS 12.1 or later, then swiped up on the screen to add your own number to the call before the other party picked up, you could hear all the audio from the other phone's microphone even if the other person never answered.
The trick spread across social media Monday (Jan. 28), according to 9to5Mac, which first reported on the bug. The Verge was able to replicate the bug, and discovered that it transmitted video too if the recipient of the call pressed the power or the volume-down button -- as one might do to dismiss the call or, um, turn on the camera.
"We have identified a fix that will be released in a software update later this week," Apple told the Verge and Buzzfeed News in virtually identical statements.
We were able to confirm that the trick worked Monday evening by placing a FaceTime call from an iPhone SE to an iPhone 7. The audio came through from the 7 without it answering the call. When the power button was pressed, the video came through as well.
But about an hour later, Apple switched off the servers that make Group FaceTime possible. Apple's System Status page noted that as of 10:16 p.m. EST Monday, Group FaceTime was "temporarily unavailable."
We confirmed Tuesday morning that the trick no longer worked. Attempting to add yourself to a FaceTime call while the other party's phone rang resulted in an error message stating that the call had "failed."
On Monday, Twitter user Benji Mobb posted video of the trick in action. Both iPhones needed to be running iOS 12.1 or later, or macOS 10.14 Mojave. (Group FaceTime was added in iOS 12.1 and apparently is where the problem lies.)
Twitter user @tythegoddess tweeted about the bug at around noon Monday Eastern time.
"There's apparently a bug that allows people to still be able to talk to you even if you don't answer the call," she wrote. "Don't believe me? FaceTime someone and then add yourself to the call."
That may have been what got the ball rolling on social media, but a little-noticed tweet from more than a week earlier indicated that someone had already tried to notify Apple.
"My teen found a major security flaw in Apple's new iOS," wrote user @MGT7500 on Jan. 20. "He can listen in to your iPhone/iPad without your approval. I have video. Submitted bug report to @AppleSupport ... waiting to hear back to provide details. Scary stuff!"
A bug in Apple devices that let callers listen in on others' microphones without their knowledge has been disabled after political leaders, business leaders and a number of media reports put pressure on the tech giant as it works to permanently solve the issue.
The software problem, which lets users use the group chat function in FaceTime, call someone and then listen in on their conversations even if the other person did not pick up, was demonstrated through videos online and reported on this week by tech blogs. The bug was first confirmed by Bloomberg News and subsequently reported elsewhere, including Fox News.
"We're aware of this issue and we have identified a fix that will be released in a software update later this week," Apple said in a statement Tuesday.
Perhaps serendipitously, the issue occurred on Data Privacy Day, a cornerstone for Apple and a day when CEO Tim Cook tweeted about privacy, writing "the dangers are real and the consequences are too important."
Tim Cook✔@tim_cookWe must keep fighting for the kind of world we want to live in. On this #DataPrivacyDay let us all insist on action and reform for vital privacy protections. The dangers are real and the consequences are too important.
Apple's online support page noted there was a technical issue with the application and that Group Facetime "is temporarily unavailable."
New York governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statement warning people about the bug and urging people to disable the app until Apple fixes the issue.
"The FaceTime bug is an egregious breach of privacy that puts New Yorkers at risk," Governor Cuomo said in the statement. "In New York, we take consumer rights very seriously and I am deeply concerned by this irresponsible bug that can be exploited for unscrupulous purposes. In light of this bug, I advise New Yorkers to disable their FaceTime app until a fix is made available, and I urge Apple to release the fix without delay."
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, a company that has also had its share of privacy issues in recent memory, called on users to disable FaceTime until Apple fixes the issue.
jack✔@jackDisable FaceTime for now until Apple fixes
Andy Baio✔@waxpancakeWant to see a really bad bug? You can FaceTime any iOS device running 12.1 and listen in remotely—WITHOUT THE OTHER PERSON ANSWERING THE CALL. (via @bzamayo) https://9to5mac.com/2019/01/28/facetime-bug-hear-audio/ …
The FaceTime bug exists on iOS devices that have iOS 12.1 or later. To disable the FaceTime app temporarily, users can go to Settings, select FaceTime and then toggle it to off until a patch has been issued.
The issue comes at a critical juncture for Apple, which has been beset by slowing iPhone sales. Earlier this month, the company issued a rare update to its quarterly revenue projections, saying it would miss fiscal first-quarter estimates by as much as $9 billion, due in part to the Trump administration's trade war with China.
Apple's market cap declined approximately $75 billion in value, though that has since been recovered on hopes that the worst may be over for the tech giant.
Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple is set to report fiscal first-quarter results after the close of trading on Tuesday. Analysts surveyed by FactSet expect Apple to report $4.17 a share in earnings and roughly $84 billion in revenue.
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