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Apple releases software fix for FaceTime eavesdropping flaw

Apple releases software fix for FaceTime eavesdropping flaw
Apple's FaceTime icon on an iPhone. (Sascha Steinbach / EPA-EFE/REX)

Apple Inc. on Thursday released a software update for iPhones and its other devices to fix a bug that enabled users of its FaceTime video-chat service to listen in on people before those people accepted or rejected their call.

The renewed software, labeled as iOS 12.1.4, can be installed on Apple mobile devices in the Software Update tab under Settings. Apple also released a macOS Mojave 10.14.3 update that fixes the bug for Mac computer users.

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The glitch — in which users could remotely control the microphones on others’ devices — occurred when a user created a FaceTime conference call, put in a phone number and then added a second phone number. It also occurred when the other user clicked their power button or one of the volume controls.

Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple mitigated the problem Jan. 28 by remotely disabling Group FaceTime. It apologized Friday and said the software update would be released this week.

The issue was a black eye for Apple, which has used privacy and security as key selling points for its devices. Last week, the company temporarily pulled important app-development tools from Alphabet Inc.’s Google and from Facebook Inc. after deciding the two companies broke its rules in monitoring users’ web traffic.

New York officials seized on the FaceTime flaw and said they would investigate the company’s failure to warn consumers about the bug and its slow response. On Tuesday, the leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its subcommittee on consumer protection called the flaw “a significant privacy violation” and sent questions to Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook about the issue.

Cook regularly criticizes internet companies for tracking people’s digital activities for advertising purposes. But Apple still takes billions of ad dollars each year from Google’s search business, which is based on harvesting personal data.

For years, Apple let outside app developers access, store, share and sell users’ contact data, often without the consent of those people. Apple quietly closed that loophole last year.

Group FaceTime calling was a key feature in last fall’s iOS 12 software update, which comes with the latest iPhones and iPads. Apple is planning an iOS 13 update for this year with a redesigned home screen for iPads and a dark mode for better nighttime viewing.

Apple stock fell 1.9% on Thursday to $170.94 a share. The stock is up more than 8% so far this year.

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