A Brief Explanation of Facebook's Scary New iPhone Bug

Photo: Gizmodo

A handful of folks recently spotted an unwelcome addition to the Facebook app for iPhone. Some stray swipes on the News Feed would inexplicably reveal the viewfinder for the phone’s rear camera. It’s unclear if the camera was recording, but there it was lurking in the background of an app that’s infamous for running all kinds of unwanted processes in the background. Facebook finally addressed the issue on Tuesday, but this might just make you wonder what else that app is doing that you don’t know about.

Before we get into the gloom and doom, let’s have a look at this new bug. One Twitter user reported a version of it back on November 2. A video shows the Facebook app freaking out when the user turned the device from portrait to landscape orientation:

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This iteration of the glitch very clearly looks like a bug. Like, if you’re trying to watch a video in the Facebook app, you’re certainly not also trying to take photos. But then things took a weird turn. Earlier this week, several more Twitter users reported a bug that opening an image in the Facebook app and then navigating away from it revealed a sliver of the camera’s viewfinder, suggesting that the camera was on, active, and running in the background whenever the app is open. The bug appeared to affect the latest version of iOS, although we were unable to replicate it at the time of this post.

This bug seems more unnerving. In a world where a large number of people think that Facebook is using their phone’s microphone in order to eavesdrop on their real-world conversations and better target ads, the notion that the Facebook app secretly activates your iPhone’s camera whenever it’s open is scary yet somehow believable. It’s also less than ideal that these camera-related bugs went unchecked for over a week. On Tuesday, Facebook’s vice president of integrity Guy Rosen responded to the above tweet, saying that it appeared to be a bug. Facebook itself broke its silence later in the day.

“We recently discovered that version 244 of the Facebook iOS app would incorrectly launch in landscape mode. In fixing that issue last week in v246 (launched on November 8th) we inadvertently introduced a bug that caused the app to partially navigate to the camera screen adjacent to News Feed when users tapped on photos,” a Facebook company spokesperson told Gizmodo. “We have seen no evidence of photos or videos being uploaded due to this bug. We’re submitting the fix for this to Apple today.”

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So it sounds like fixing the old bug introduced a new one. Now, some users seem convinced that the camera is always on when the Facebook app is running. Users just don’t see the viewfinder view unless the open the camera feature. This could make sense from a performance point of view. When Facebook introduced its new camera app, it was possible to swipe to the left from the News Feed to access the camera quickly. Keeping the camera itself active while the app was in use would cut down on lag time that might be caused by the camera firing up. Indeed, security researchers have long warned that allowing an app to access your camera means that the camera can be activated without the user knowing.

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It’s not yet clear whether this is happening with the current Facebook app. We’ve asked the company to clarify exactly when the app turns the camera on and but haven’t received a reply. In the meantime, the world gets to remember that the massive social media company battling for its monopolistic life on Capitol Hill right now is not immune from bugs. In fact, when the company’s hundreds of developers do introduce a bug, the sheer size of Facebook’s user base means that an error could affect hundreds of millions of people before it gets spotted. And that’s assuming that Facebook isn’t intentionally doing things like secretly turning on your phone’s camera. We’ll update this post when Facebook decides to give users more information.

If all of this bothers you, delete the Facebook app. Regardless of whatever the company says to explain away this mini-scandal, it has a well-documented track record of being overbearing in terms of tracking its users and then reckless with the data it collects. Did you know, for instance, that the Facebook app can track your location even if you turn off location services in settings? Facebook can also technically activate your phone’s camera even if you’re not trying to take a photo. Your right to privacy sure is quite a price to pay for this rueful future of social media dominance. Facebook was never supposed to be free.

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Update 7:05pm - Facebook clarified the camera behavior in a follow up statement:

Triggering this bug activated the camera preview, and once triggered, the preview remained active until you tapped elsewhere in the app. At no point was the preview content stored by the app or uploaded to our servers.

We’ve confirmed that we didn’t upload anything to FB due to this bug and that the camera didn’t capture anything since it was in preview mode. We’ve submitted a fixed version to the App Store which is already rolling out.

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From the wording in this statement, it sounds like the camera’s “preview mode” is not quite as daunting as an always-on camera.

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About the author

Adam Clark Estes

Senior editor at Gizmodo.

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