Group calling on Apple’s FaceTime service has been temporarily disabled as the tech giant works on a patch to address a bug that enables eavesdropping.
News broke yesterday of a vulnerability that is activated when users initiate group calls and add themselves as a participant. The bug somehow tricks the recipient’s smartphone into believing a group call is already underway, and it inexplicably turns on the recipient’s microphone even if they haven’t accepted the call.
Making matters worse is the fact that if the recipient tries to silence the call by turning down the volume or dismiss it by pressing on the power button, their camera turns on. The result is that their activity is streamed via camera and microphone, unbeknownst to them, even though their phone display still shows the incoming call screen.
Permanent fix expected soon
An Apple spokesperson says they have found a permanent fix that will be released via a software update scheduled for later in the week. The problem can occur when both parties are using iOS 12.1 or newer, and it can also affect Mac users who receive calls from iPhones.
Apple is hoping to minimize the damage to its reputation caused by the bug. The firm has long emphasized the safety and privacy of its products over those of the competition; they recently ran a billboard spanning 13 stories in Las Vegas that boasted: “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.”
The flaw was exposed on Data Privacy Day, and the timing couldn’t have been worse: it was also the day before their quarterly results call, which is widely expected to be disappointing as the firm recently had to slash its revenue forecast by US$5 billion.
Shutting down Group FaceTime is a smart move, but some users are avoiding FaceTime entirely for peace of mind until Apple gets the bug sorted. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo warned residents to disable the app until the fix is available, calling the bug “an egregious breach of privacy that puts New Yorkers at risk.”
In the meantime, Apple could lose some ground to services like Skype and WhatsApp as people look for alternative ways to make group calls.