14-year-old’s FaceTime bug discovery could rattle Apple

‘I’m only 14 and I found it by accident, instead of the people at Apple that get paid to find glitches’

At the heart of Apple’s shocking FaceTime bug, which allowed just about anyone to turn an iPhone into a live microphone, stands a 14-year-old boy who stumbled upon the eavesdropping flaw more than a week before Apple took action.

“The thing that surprised me the most was that this glitch happened in the first place,” said Grant Thompson, a high school freshman in Tucson, Arizona. “I’m only 14 and I found it by accident, instead of the people at Apple that get paid to find glitches.”

Not only that, but Grant and his mom said they spent a week unsuccessfully trying to get Apple to do something about the bug in its FaceTime group-chatting feature.

“It took nine days for us to get a response,” he said. “My mom contacted them almost every single day through email, calling, faxing.” Of the fax, he jokes, “I’m not even sure what that is. It’s probably older than I am.”

This eavesdropping scare is over now that Apple has disabled group chats, but the problem could dog the company for much longer. New York state officials have opened a consumer rights investigation. Others are raising questions about how long it took Apple to address the bug.

In a statement Friday, Apple thanked the Thompsons as it announced that it has identified a fix and will release it next week. FaceTime group chatting will resume then.

Grant, a straight-A student who plays basketball, does community volunteering and enjoys the video game “Fortnite,” was calling friends to play the game on a Saturday night, Jan. 19, when he discovered the flaw.

“If a 14-year-old kid discovered it, I wonder how many other people discovered it,” said Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer with the security firm Veracode.

Apple hasn’t said whether it has records that could answer that question.

Friday’s statement said Apple’s engineers worked quickly once it got the details needed to reproduce the bug. Although Apple didn’t acknowledge a delay, the company said it was “committed to improving the process by which we receive and escalate these reports, in order to get them to the right people as fast as possible.”

The company — at first widely praised for its swift response — could come under increased scrutiny as regulators seek to learn more about the vulnerability.

VIDEO: Apple to fix FaceTime bug that allowed eavesdropping

New York Attorney General Letitia James and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that they’re investigating “Apple’s failure to warn consumers about the FaceTime bug and slow response to addressing the issue.”

They said the bug jeopardized the privacy of New York consumers by allowing callers to activate another person’s microphone remotely even before the person has accepted or rejected the call. James said her office’s review will include a “thorough investigation into Apple’s response.”

Last October, Apple introduced the 32-person video conferencing feature for iPhones, iPads and Macs. With the bug, a FaceTime group-chat user calling another Apple device could hear audio — even if the receiver didn’t accept the call. The bug was triggered when callers turn a regular FaceTime call into a group chat, making FaceTime think the receiver had accepted the chat.

In Grant’s case, he had just gotten his Xbox ready and called to invite a friend, Nathan, to play “Fortnite” with him online.

“You can swipe up and add another person, so I added another friend of mine, Diego, to see if he also wanted to play,” he said. “But as soon as I added Diego, it forced Nathan to respond.”

They were shocked at first, then tried to repeat the bug and it happened every time, he said. His mother, Michele Thompson, said she started trying to reach Apple the next day.

“They could have tested it within two minutes, realized it was true and brought it up the chain at Apple,” said Thompson, who works as an attorney. “There needs to be a better process for the average citizen to report things like this. And a timelier response.”

She eventually reached someone who advised that she could register as a software developer to submit the bug. Such reports can sometimes lead to “bug bounties” so that those who discover a flaw can get a financial reward. The family hoped Grant could receive such an award, or at least some credit, for his discovery.

“Every day he would ask me, ‘Did we hear from Apple yet?’ she said.

The family tried reaching Apple through multiple channels. They left comments on Twitter, one of them directed to CEO Tim Cook, and uploaded a video to walk Apple engineers through the problem. But it wasn’t until a tech blog reported the flaw earlier this week — leading many people to experiment with the spying bug themselves — that Apple took the unusual measure of temporarily shutting down the group-chat feature.

Apple has declined to say when it learned about the problem. The company also wouldn’t say if it has logs that could show if anyone took advantage of the bug before it became publicly known this week. The company reached out to the Thompson family on Tuesday offering to give some public credit for their efforts, according to an email Michele Thompson shared with The Associated Press.

“It would be cool to just have Apple say thanks to me,” Grant Thompson said before Friday’s announcement from Apple. “And of course, the bug bounty, that would be pretty awesome to get, but as long as we got rid of this pretty groundbreaking bug, and Apple said thank you, that would be pretty cool.”

Matt O’Brien, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

VIDEO: Driver in bizarre hit-and-run at car dealership in Campbell River turns herself in

Police believe alcohol was a factor in incident causing estimated $15,000 in damages

Horgan heckled as gas prices sit at record high, could go up more

Premier John Horgan blames refiners, not taxes

Home care transition could exacerbate worker shortage: Seniors advocate

Advocate fears impact of eight-hour shift model on an industry under stress

Tofino beckons Trudeau back for Easter vacation

Environmental group hopes latest Pacific Rim vacation inspires change in prime minister

Many teens unaware if they’re vaping nicotine or not

Health Canada survey finds many youth are unaware of the risks of using nicotine products

VIDEO: ‘Alarm bells’ raised by footage allegedly from B.C. pig farm, SPCA says

PETA released video Wednesday showing dead and injured piglets next to nursing piglets

Police charge 27-year-old male in Langford shooting

Justin Lemmen was arrested shortly after the shooting after crashing into a truck

Good Samaritans rescue Sidney senior trapped under mobility scooter

78-year-old broke her pelvis and spent a week in hospital after the accident

‘B.C. cannot wait for action’: Top doctor urges province to decriminalize illicit drugs

Dr. Bonnie Henry says current approach in ‘war on drugs’ has criminalized and stigmatized drug users

B.C. woman, 76, challenges alcohol-screening laws after failing to give breath sample

Norma McLeod was unable to provide a sample because of her medical conditions

New report on 2017 wildfires calls for better coordination with B.C. First Nations

Tsilhqot’in National Government documents 2017 disaster and lists 33 calls to action

B.C. youth coach banned amid sexual harassment, bullying scandal: Water Polo Canada

Justin Mitchell can’t take part in Water Polo Canada events or clubs

Wilson-Raybould: Feds want to just ‘manage the problem’ of Indigenous Peoples

Former federal justice minister speaks at First Nations Justice Council meeting in B.C.

Woman who was chased and tackled after break-in sentenced on Vancouver Island

Natasha Geraldine Harris, 28, was sentenced to time served and will be released from jail

Most Read