FaceTime Is Eroding Trust in Tech

MichaelJayBerlin/Shutterstock.com

Tech paranoiacs have been totally vindicated.

“Why do you keep calling me with FaceTime instead of, you know, normal calls?” my Georgia Tech colleague Charles Isbell asked me the other week. “I don’t even mean to,” I answered. “For some reason, it just does it that way!”

We thought it was just a nuisance that introduced confusion, ringing the phone in a different and unexpected way. But a serious FaceTime bug revealed on social media this week indicates that the service—Apple’s voice and video telephony software—could have been used for more nefarious ends.

The bug allows users to listen in on, or even watch, the person they are calling before that party has even answered the call. It doesn’t even require any technical knowledge or esoteric hacking. As 9to5Mac showed, following a few simple steps to add the ringing call to a group chat is sufficient. Apple has taken the group-calling service offline until a software update can be provided. In the meantime, if you have an iPhone, it’s probably a good idea to turn off FaceTime until a fix arrives.

I can’t believe I’m saying that, but here we are. It’s not just significant because a giant, wealthy tech company introduced a bad and seemingly careless bug in the core software of the most important kind of computer on Earth. It’s also notable because the exposure, which is real, substantiates and mainstreams long-running paranoid fears about the inherent untrustworthiness of computer hardware. You know those paranoids who told you to cover your laptop camera with tape so hackers couldn’t spy on you? They were right, in a way: Your computer might be out to get you, even if it doesn’t mean to be.

Trustworthy is hardly a word many people use to characterize big tech these days. Facebook’s careless infrastructure upended democracy. Abuse is so rampant on Twitter and Instagram that those services feel designed to deliver harassment, rather than updates from friends. Hacks, leaks, and other breaches of privacy, from Facebook to Equifax, have become so common that it’s hard to believe that any digital information is secure. The tech economy seems designed to steal data and resell it.

Apple has largely risen above this fray. The company makes most of its money from hardware sales, not advertising, so it has little reason to collect or cheat you out of your data. A 2014 leak of celebrities’ private iCloud photos offers an exception, but successful phishing attacks led to that breach, not a defect in Apple’s servers. Because Apple wants consumers to buy more phones, more often, previous controversy has been mostly limited to accusations of planned obsolescence. Last year, Apple launched a low-cost battery-replacement program to make up for one such irritation. It would turn out to come at the worst time, as iPhone sales slowed, cratering Apple stock at the end of the year.

This FaceTime bug arrives on the heels of Apple’s apparent fall from grace, and that makes it a sign of something relatively new. Hardware and software systems are more complex than ever, and bugs are bound to arise. Most are accidental, the unexpected combination of instructions given by humans to computers, which do exactly what they are told. But with billions of dollars in the bank and thousands of engineers, the public will lean hard on Apple’s promise of trust, which CEO Tim Cook used to distinguish his company from competitors like Google and Facebook.

The paranoia will increase too. Couldn’t the FaceTime exploit have been purposely added, as a backdoor for the government or for the lulz of a disgruntled engineer, some might wonder? Yes, that’s possible, if unlikely. (Apple has yet to respond to a request for comment from The Atlantic about the origins of the bug, but in an earlier statement, the company told journalists: “We’re aware of this issue and we have identified a fix that will be released in a software update later this week.”) The origins of the bug may not matter, because paranoia is a jealous sentiment: The moment it even seems possible that some dark force is out to get you, those who would embrace and amplify that worry won’t let it go. And all the other justified worries about big tech only worsen that condition.

The bug should also raise concerns about the ongoing drive to turn everything that once worked well into a less reliable and secure, if more convenient, computational equivalent. FaceTime isn’t expressly necessary. It’s a convenient way to make calls, especially video calls, but there are others, like Skype. FaceTime Audio does sound better than a traditional phone call, because it’s sampled at twice the rate, making higher frequency voices and sounds more audible. That’s an improvement, but many people would prefer more certain privacy over being able to hear the sighs of the person on the other end of the telephone.

These services slowly seep into contemporary life, often without us even noticing what’s happening. I looked into why calls to my colleague Charles were routing through FaceTime; as best I can tell, I once used it to call him, probably when I had poor cellular coverage. Afterward, pressing the “audio” button, emblazoned with an old-school telephone handset, appears to have sent the call through FaceTime. Initiating a traditional call now requires many more button presses.

This is how snowballs form. A deliberate accident leads to a realization that FaceTime audio quality is better, which might inspire me to use it more often, and more deliberately. Eventually, as millions or billions of people do so, the relevance of the public switched telephone network might degrade, making Apple a telco as much as anything. (Microsoft aspired to a similar assault on telephony when it bought Skype and then transformed it into a corporate service.)

It’s unlikely that FaceTime will take over for telephone calls anytime soon, if ever. It’s a proprietary service of Apple, and the company needs a lot more of those services to keep consumers on its high-profit devices. But slow, steady change makes services proliferate. That’s how Facebook or Google or LinkedIn went from obscurity to necessity. You can’t buy a laptop without a camera that might or might not spy on you, and you can’t buy an iPhone without FaceTime. And with it, all the foibles and defects that service brings.

Eventually, and soon, Apple will release a fix for this bug. News about it will dissipate into the background, until eventually it will be largely forgotten. But behind the scenes, the issue will persist. Apple might be able to alter the behavior of FaceTime at the server level, but any changes that need to run on the client—that’s your iPhone—would still require that the user actually install the software update. If you or someone in your house tends to put off updating to the latest version, they could still be at risk if the bug is still operative, or if other exploits arise. Often, these sorts of problems encourage people to look for more security holes, whether for actual spying or just to amuse themselves by terrorizing the computer-using public with the fear of violation. And with every software update—arriving with increasing frequency—old problems vanish, but new ones also appear.

For another part, no matter its cause, this breach of trust will stack atop all the others that have come before, further eroding the foundation of computation. Times have changed for tech, and the default feeling people have for their devices and the services they provide is no longer eager excitement, but anxious concern. The paranoids were once on the fringes, spinning incredible tales of targeted persecution at the covert hands of corporate or government scoundrels. The truth turns out to be more boring, and therefore even more terrifying: When you constantly tweak computers and the software that runs on them in the hopes of winning more customers using them more often, there’s more opportunity for something to go wrong.

There’s not much any one person can do about that state of affairs. You can obscure your laptop camera, but if you want to lead a normal and productive life in the world today, you can’t tape over your whole iPhone.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.