How Serious was the FaceTime Risk

On Monday the 21st of January an issue was identified with Apples FaceTime application. A feature within FaceTime used for a group call can turn a remote iPhone into a listening bug. In some circumstances and remote video camera. This poses a critical privacy risk as it allows anyone using Facetime to hear or see you before you even answer.   

Gibraltar based Hedgehog Cyber Security tested the original reported bug using an iPhone X running the latest iOS 12.1.2 and confirmed that it works, as flagged by 9to5Mac on Monday morning. They were then able to extend the issue through a series of MacBooks. The problem seemed to exist everywhere that FaceTime did.

The issue was reported to Apple who took this issue very seriously. At the moment Apple has disabled FaceTime group calling until a fix has been implemented and a patch for numerous IOS devices is expected shortly.

So far this has been widely reported as a hack although it isn't. It is more an unintended snafu in the facetime application on Apple devices. However, if you own an Apple device, turn Off FaceTime immediately, and then get the Apple update that is coming out this week. Alternatively, next.

So how does the issue work?

“If you had a keen interest in a person and you knew that that person had an iPhone, you could call them using FaceTime. While it is dialling you simple add yourself as a group caller and even if the other person does not answer you can hear everything through the microphone of those persons iPhone. The issue is worse if they hit the mute button or turn the volume down because that causes the video camera to activate and you get a live video stream."

       

So what is the risk? Well, as Peter Bassill, CEO at Hedgehog Cyber Security points out:

"This is yet another example of where it is possible to turn a device from a day to day item into a listening bug. We have seen similar issues with children’s toys and games through to regular household appliances. This particular issue though is slightly different in that it is a mass consumer device and there are millions around the world. More than 7500 within Gibraltar itself. While there are certainly commercial risks with this, there is a massive child safety and welfare risk attached to this and similar vulnerabilities. With only the audio enablement things are bad enough, but if the call is through to a child and they hit mute or turn down the volume, and the camera is enabled then there is a significantly larger concern. The thought that a random person would be able to eavesdrop on my children and possibly enable a live video feed without them being aware chills me to the bone.”

What about within the commercial world? Would company phones with anti-malware be protected?

“A great point and sadly no, they would not be protected. The issue is with the underlying code within FaceTime. It would be easier to think of it as more of an unknown and unwanted feature within FaceTime. Endpoint protection software simply is not going to protect you and the handset. The only real protection is to disable FaceTime.”

What Peter says about Gibraltar:       

"For Gibraltar, there is a very strong iPhone user base. In our State of Cyber Security Gibraltar research, we identified slightly more than 7500 unique iPhone and iPad devices in and around Gibraltar. That would be a significant area of coverage if you wanted to listen to meetings and conversations. Typically the populace are trusting of their devices, and on the whole, this is fine and right. Gibraltar is one of the centres for financial trading, and with the development of the crypto-based currency market there is certainly scope for misuse of devices to gain competitive advantages for the unscrupulous person."

The advice from the team at Hedgehog Cyber is to disable FaceTime for the time being and then re-enable it once the next major IOS update has been installed.