The Facetime security bug is embarrassing for Apple but compared to other tech companies they acted decently and quickly. Here’s how to protect yourself.
The Facetime bug allowed someone to eavesdrop on you without you knowing it. It activated the Apple device microphone even though the receiver had not answered the call. In effect any iPhone, iPad or Mac computer became a possible bugging device.
Ouch … big ouch.
That’s bad, very bad. As long-time watchers of these tech problems we think Apple acted better and faster than another tech company we can name (starts with ‘Micro’ and ends with ‘soft’).
The bug appears to have been in Facetime since October 2018 with the release of iOS 12.1 (we’re at v12.1.3 right now). If you have iOS 12.0 or before, Facetime is OK.
The bug was discovered by a 14 year old boy. He and his mother tried to tell Apple but ran into the problem of getting the attention of an enormous company. It took them a week before senior people at Apple realized there was a problem.
Given Apple’s size and the number of customer enquiries they get every day, a week isn’t bad.
Most likely, the mother and son had trouble even being believed. The Facetime eavesdropping bug is so simple that Apple staff probably dismissed the reports as a customer mistake.
Excel calculation bug
Office Watch saw this happen to Microsoft many years ago. An Excel calculation bug was reported but no-one at Microsoft believed it. The bug was too simple to do and Microsoft’s staff have a unshakable belief in the infallibility of Excel’s arithmetic. It was only when Office Watch revealed the bug publicly that Microsoft paid attention and, eventually, fixed the bug.
One of the interesting footnotes was Microsoft’s checking of support logs for the previous months. It turned out that the calculation problem has been reported several times before, but no-one realized that it was a genuine bug.
What Apple did
Once Apple realized Facetime had a genuine and serious bug they acted honorably.
The Group Facetime calling feature was disabled for all customers. The eavesdropping bug is linked to Group calling so temporarily blocking that option will annoy some people but should reassure most people.
What you can do
If you want to make extra-certain, disable Facetime in your iPad, iPhone or Mac.
On devices go to Settings | Facetime and turn it off from the slider at the top right.
On Macs, open Facetime then go to Preferences and choose ‘Sign Out’.
But that will stop you receiving incoming Facetime calls which might not suit you, depending on how much Facetime-ing you do.
Some people are suggesting deleting the Facetime app completely. That’s probably overkill but harmless because the app can be reinstalled at any time.
Apple is promising a Facetime bug fix, hopefully this week. That’s also quick work. Let’s hope they don’t make Microsoft’s common mistake of making a fix which causes even more problems!