Apple kills group FaceTime calls to fix bug that allows eavesdropping

Tim Jimenez
January 29, 2019 - 7:04 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Apple has temporarily pulled the plug on group FaceTime calls after users said there was a bug that could allow callers to activate another user's microphone remotely.

The glitch on iPhones, iPads or MacBooks is a cringeworthy one if you're worried about privacy, says CNET Executive Editor Ian Scherr. 

"It's rather disturbing and allows for a crazy invasion of privacy without the other person pressing 'OK' and starting the call," he said.

Here's what the glitch looked like:

  • A user FaceTimes an iPhone contact.
  • While the call is dialing, the caller taps "Add person" and adds their own phone number.
  • A group FaceTime call starts, allowing the caller to hear the person originally called, even if they haven’t accepted the call.

"And their microphone and their laptop microphone, if they have that, all turn on. And you're suddenly able to hear what they're saying," Scherr said. "Sometimes, according to some reports, able to see video."

In effect, it turned a person's phone into a live mic and camera without their knowing it. 

This was first reported by the website 9 to 5 Mac. Apple announced that the company is working on a software update that will fix this problem, which is expected to be released by the end of the week. In the meantime, the company disabled group FaceTime calls.

When Dr. Rob D'Ovidio, a cybersecurity expert from Drexel, first heard about the glitch, his reaction was "No, not again." That's because with software constantly changing, updates issued regularly, it's hard for people behind the scenes to keep up. 

"We have to recognize that people aren't perfect and it's people that are testing the systems," he added, "so something is going to get by." 

D'Ovidio said sites like 9 to 5 Mac play a "vital role" in keeping the public informed and safe when it comes to tech. 

There are no known bugs with one-on-one FaceTime calls. To play it safe, users can turn off FaceTime by going to "Settings," tapping "FaceTime," and then tapping the button on the top of the screen that turns it off.