Apple’s Tim Cook Faces Questioning by Key House Democrats on FaceTime Privacy Bug

February 6, 2019, 1:02 AM UTC

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook is getting questions from two key U.S. House Democrats about a bug that let users of its FaceTime video-chat service listen in on people they contacted even before the person accepted or rejected the call.

The flaw is “a significant privacy violation,” the leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its subcommittee on consumer protection said in a letter to Cook dated Tuesday. The lawmakers asked when the company became aware of the flaw and “whether there are other undisclosed bugs that currently exist and have not been addressed.”

Committee Chairman Frank Pallone of New Jersey and subcommittee Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois wrote that they didn’t “believe Apple has been as transparent as this serious issue requires.”

“While these are wonderful tools when used right, the serious privacy issue with Group FaceTime demonstrates how these devices can also become the ultimate spying machines,” Pallone and Schakowsky wrote.

Software Update

Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Apple has apologized for the bug and said it has mitigated the FaceTime problem by remotely disabling Group FaceTime. It has said a software update allowing it to work properly would be released this week.

The FaceTime glitch would occur when a user created a FaceTime conference call, put in a phone number, and then added another person’s phone number. The flaw also allowed video to be sent if the other user clicked their power button or one of the volume controls.

The bug was a black eye for Apple, which has made privacy and security key selling points for its devices.

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

For years, Apple allowed outside app developers to access, store, share and sell users’ contact data, often without the consent of those people. Apple 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. New York officials have said they will investigate the company’s failure to warn consumers about the bug and its slow response.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee oversees most tech policy issues and, under prior Republican leadership, brought Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress in April 2018.

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