Apple to fix FaceTime bug that allows eavesdropping

January 29, 2019 by Matt O'brien And Carlo Piovano
Apple to fix FaceTime bug that allows eavesdropping
In this Oct. 30, 2018, file photo Apple's new MacBook Air computers are displayed during the company's showcase of new products in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Apple Inc. reports earnings Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Apple has disabled a group-chat function in FaceTime after users said a software bug could let callers activate another person's microphone remotely.

With the bug, a FaceTime user calling another iPhone, iPad or Mac computer could hear audio—even if the receiver did not accept the call. The bug is triggered when callers add themselves to the same call to launch a group chat. That makes FaceTime think the receiver had accepted the chat.

The bug, demonstrated through videos online , comes as an embarrassment for a company that is trying to distinguish itself by stressing its commitment to users' privacy.

"This is a big hit to their brand," said Dave Kennedy, CEO of Ohio-based security firm TrustedSec. "There's been a long period of time people could have used that to eavesdrop. These things definitely should be caught prior to ever being released."

There is no longer a danger from this particular bug as Apple disabled group chats, while regular, one-on-one FaceTime remains available.

NBC News and The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the family of a 14-year-old high school student in Tucson, Arizona, tried to inform Apple about the bug more than a week before it became widely known to the public. The boy, Grant Thompson, said he discovered it by accident while calling friends to play the game "Fortnite."

Apple to fix FaceTime bug that allows eavesdropping
In this Jan. 3, 2019 file photo, the Apple logo is displayed at the Apple store in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Apple has made the group chat function in FaceTime unavailable, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019, after users said there was a bug that could allow callers to activate another user's microphone remotely. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

It's hard to know if anyone exploited the bug maliciously, said Erka Koivunen, chief information security officer for Finnish company F-Secure. He said it would have been hard to use the bug to spy on someone, as the phone would ring first—and it's easy to identify who called.

Apple said Tuesday that a fix will come in a software update later this week. Apple declined to say when it learned about the problem. The company also wouldn't say if it has logs that could show if anyone took advantage of the bug before it became publicly known this week.

Kennedy commended Apple's quick response this week following reports of the bug by tech blogs. He predicted the reputational dent could soon be forgotten if it doesn't become part of a pattern.

"All bugs are obvious in retrospect," said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The truth is bugs are subtle, code is complicated and sometimes things get through."

Galperin said Apple should develop a better process for fielding reports about potential security flaws. She said the 14-year-old's discovery of the problem "just tells us a lot about reporting security bugs depends on knowing the right person."

Apple had introduced the 32-person video conferencing feature in October for iPhones, iPads and Macs. Regular FaceTime calls aren't affected unless the caller turns it into a group chat.

Word of the bug came as Apple reported that profit for the last three months of 2018 dipped slightly to $20 billion while revenue fell 5 percent from the prior year to $84 billion. Earlier this month, Apple said that demand for iPhones was waning and that its earnings for the final quarter of 2018 would be below its own forecasts—a rare downgrade from the company.

Explore further: iPhone FaceTime bug lets callers eavesdrop

Related Stories

iPhone FaceTime bug lets callers eavesdrop

January 29, 2019

A newly discovered FaceTime bug lets people hear and even see those they are reaching out to on iPhones even if the other person hasn't answered their phone.

With FaceTime, Apple has chance to dominate video calls

June 10, 2010

After decades of false starts, will Apple be able to bring video chat to the masses? While the technology, which would allows people to see those they're talking to, has long been in place, and video conferencing is drawing ...

Apple ordered to pay $368 million in patent case

November 7, 2012

Apple has been ordered to pay $368 million for patent infringement in its use of Facetime, an application that allows for video calls on mobile devices, the plaintiff said Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.