The recent FaceTime bug, which enabled call recipients’ microphones to be activated without knowledge or consent, has ruffled feathers among Apple users. The reports were met with a mixture of surprise, caution and concern.
The bug was reported late January and a fix was not released till the second week of February. This left iOS and Mac OS consumers with no other option than to disable the troublesome application in the interim.
Too close to home
Naiyer Husain, a UK-based Apple device user, says the reports have been very alarming. “One has always heard that random hackers can activate your microphone or cameras and we tend to ignore this,” she says. “What is scary about this particular example is that people you know have the ability to eavesdrop on you. That makes it all the more disconcerting,” she adds.
As a corporate professional, having held executive positions up until her recent retirement, Naiyer emphasises that such a breach can prove disastrous for business. “For all you know, conversations being held in preliminary or private meetings are being eavesdropped on by other stakeholders,” she fears.
“The worst part is, these ‘eavesdroppers’ did not even plan to listen in to the conversation in the first place and were probably calling to have a simple chat. Suddenly, they are aware of more information [than] you are willing to part with at that given time.”
Naiyer installed the fix as soon as it launched, but still has her doubts. “The myth of Apple’s security and privacy being bulletproof no longer exists.”
Comes as a surprise
On the other hand, IT professional Sravan Kumar, who has been working with middleware technologies for the last eight years, says neither Apple nor its competitors have any interest in doing “such things [purposely]”. But he still finds it surprising that this bug was found in Apple products. “If security is compromised, there is no point [for consumers to keep] going for Apple with its huge price tag,” he says.
Kumar adds that since everything is digital nowadays, privacy is an important factor. He advises users to not frequently update the software of their devices, unless they have trouble with their current versions.
“The latest update has a lot of issues which can [only] be fixed over a period of time,” he cautions.
Beyond phones, tablets and computers
Daniel Torres’ company Paratum Consulting, focuses primarily on privacy/security and works a lot with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. He prescribes a different approach to keep devices from snooping or eavesdropping, and is of the contrary belief that they have to be updated regularly.
In addition, other devices than smartphones or computers, also pose a threat. “Most people update their computer and hopefully the smartphone,” he says. Torres rhetorically asks how many people update their routers or Internet of Things (IoT) devices like smart washing machines and fridges etc. “All connected devices in your home that you don’t update represent a security problem. If you have a smart TV or some other device to monitor your children, you don’t want an unknown person snooping.”
He believes most people do not even change their router password, and also fail to update devices in a timely fashion. Torres outlines that peoples’ routers are their gateway to the internet. “Now this is scary – I bet a lot of people never update their IoT devices and simply buy a new unit after a couple of years,” he says.
To keep their privacy intact, he advises consumers to buy good hardware and install reliable antivirus software, along with a firewall.
Apple’s response to the threat
The possibility to listen in on unsuspecting FaceTime users was discovered by a a teenager in Arizona.
The technology giant has since decided to compensate 14-year-old Grant Thompson who stumbled upon the bug. Grant was calling a friend to coordinate a gaming session. When the recipient did not answer the call, he added a second friend to turn it into a group conversation.
This caused the original call to 'pick up', despite his friend not answering. For a few seconds, he was able to listen in through his friend’s microphone. The Apple user experimented by calling other friends and his mother to learn whether this was an isolated incident. It was not.
Apple has apologised to its consumers for the potential breach. “In addition to addressing the bug that was reported, our team conducted a thorough security audit of the FaceTime service and made additional updates to both the FaceTime app and server to improve security,” an official statement reads.
Incidents such as these highlight how technology is not always perfect, and even the most careful of users are susceptible to these kinds of threats. Experts in the field and users alike, have spotlighted that developers need to minimise the possibility of bugs, if they hope to continue charging high prices for their products.
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