Tag Archives: App Store

The Phantom Threats We Face

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We fear what we don’t know, even if it’s a guy in Shenzhen trying to make an honest living developing software that changes the background color of your mobile phone display.

Here’s what happened. I’ll save the lessons for the end of this piece.

A guy who prefers to go by the name Jackeey found a  niche for himself developing programs—usually called apps—for the Android cellphone operating system.

They were wallpaper applications—basically changing the background to the display.

That was until an online news site, VentureBeat, reported on July 28 that a security company, Lookout, had told a conference of security geeks that  that some downloadable applications to phones running the Android operating system would “collect a user’s browsing history, their text messages, the phone’s SIM card number and subscriber identification, voicemail phone number password” and send all this data to a website owned by someone in Shenzhen, China.

Yikes! Someone in China is listening to our conversations! Figuring out what we’re doing on our phone! Sending all this info to Shenzhen! Sound the alarum!

Word did indeed spread quickly. About 800 outlets covered the story, including mainstream publications like the Daily Telegraph and Fortune magazine: “Is your smart phone spying on you?” asked one TV station’s website.

Scary stuff.

Only it isn’t true. Firstly, VentureBeat had the story wrong: The applications in question only transmitted a portion of this data. No browsing history was transmitted, no text messages, no voicemail password.

VentureBeat corrected the story—sort of; the incorrect bits are crossed out, but there’s no big CORRECTION message across the top of the story—but the damage was done. Google suspended Jackeey’s apps. Everyone considered Jackeey evil and confirmed suspicions that a) Android was flakey on security and b) stuff from China was dodgy.

All kind of sad. Especially when you find that actually Jackeey himself is not exactly unreachable. A few keyword searches and his email address appears and, voila! he’s around to answer your questions. Very keen to, in fact, given the blogosphere has just ruined his life.

Here’s what he told me: He needed the user’s phone number and subscriber ID because people complained that when they change their phone they lose all their settings.

That’s it. That’s the only stuff that’s saved.

Needless to say he is somewhat miffed that no one tried to contact him before making the report public; nor had most of the bloggers and journalists who dissed his applications.

“I am just an Android developer,” he said. “I love wallpapers and I use different wallpaper every day. All I want is to make the greatest Android apps.”

Now of course he could be lying through his teeth, but I see no evidence in the Lookout report or anything that has appeared subsequently that seems to suggest the developer has done anything underhand. (The developer has posted some screenshots of his app’s download page which show that they do not request permission to access text message content, nor of browsing history.)

In fact, he seemed to be doing a pretty good job: His apps had been downloaded several million times. He declined to give his name, but acknowledged that he was behind both apps provided under the name Jackeey, and under the name iceskysl@1sters.

The story sort of ends happily. After investigating them Google has reinstated the apps to their app store and will issue a statement sometime soon. It told Jackeey in an email that “Our investigation has concluded that there’s no obvious malicious code in your apps, though the implementation accesses data that it doesn’t need to.”

VentureBeat hasn’t written an apology but they have acknowledged that: “The controversy grew in part because we incorrectly reported in our initial post that the app also sent your text messages and browser history to the website.”

For his part Jackeey is redesigning his apps to take into account Google’s suggestions. He points out that to do so will require him to have users set up an account and enter a password, which some users may be reluctant to do. And the Google suggestion is not entirely secure either.

Obviously this is all very unsatisfactory, in several ways.

Firstly, the journalism was a tad sloppy. No attempt was made to contact the developer of the app for comment before publishing—how would you feel if it was your livelihood on the line?—and the correction was no real correction at all.

Secondly, the internet doesn’t have a way to propagate corrections, so all the other websites that happily picked up the story didn’t update theirs to reflect the correction.

Thirdly, Google maybe should have contacted Jackeey before suspending the apps. It would have been kinder, and, given they’ve not found anything suspicious, the right thing to do.

Fourthly, us. We don’t come out of this well. We are somehow more ready to believe a story that includes a) security issues (which we don’t understand well) and b) China, where we’re perhaps used to hearing stories that fit a certain formula. Suspicious?

And lastly, perhaps we should look a little harder at the source of these reports.  We seem very quick to attribute suspicious behavior to someone we don’t know much about, in some scary far-off place, but less to those we do closer to home: Lookout’s main business, after all, is prominently displayed on their homepage: an application to, in its words, “protect yourself from mobile viruses and malware. Stop hackers in their tracks.”

So spare a thought for Jackeey. If you do a keyword search for him, the first hit is the story “’Suspicious’ Android wallpaper app nabs user data”, and links to 863 related articles. Below—a week after the hoo-ha, and after Google has sort of put things right–are headlines like: “Jackeey Wallpaper for Android steals your personal info”, “Your Rotten App, Jackeey Wallpaper” and “Jackeey steeling [sic] info on Android devices”.

In other words, anyone who checks out Jackeey’s wares on Google will find they don’t, well, check out.

I got back in touch with Jackeey to see how he’s holding up, a week after the storm broke. I’m in some pain, he says, “because mass negative press said that I steal users’ text messages, contacts and even passwords.” People have removed his applications from their phone, and people have been blasting him by email and instant messaging, calling him “thief”, “evil person” and other epithets.

“I am afraid that it will destroy my reputation and affect my livelihood forever,” he says.

I’m not surprised. We owe to folk like Jackeey to make apps for our phones, so we should treat him a little better.

Finger Painting, Angling and Tuning the Cello: the New Computing

I’m not overwhelmed by Nokia’s new appstore, Ovi, but using it does help remind one of what the real revolution in computing is (I have been talking a lot about revolutions lately, but there are basically three: the information revolution, the computing revolution, and the mobile revolution, which I’ll address later.)

The computing revolution is this: a small device, about the size of your hand, which is called a phone, but isn’t, really. It’s what Nokia can only dream of: a device so smart that even ordinary people can use it. It’s called the iPhone, and listening to some friends talk about it the other night brought home just how great an impact it has wrought, and will have.

One was talking about working with someone who, during a long car drive, would take his iPhone and look like he was about to throw it away. Then he would stop, his hand mid air, and then he would look at the screen. And then do it again. At first my friend thought he was having some sort of seizure, or was just really upset about something.

Then he realized he was angling. With his iPhone. (I can’t find the app right now.)

My other friend has a tuner in his, so he can tune his cello. “It’s geeky I know, but when I come home at the end of the day I can be up and playing quickly,” he said. Just point the device at the cello, hit a string and the iPhone display will indicate whether it’s in tune.

Both of these are great examples of how computing fulfills its promise by giving the user something they actually want, when they want it and in a form that fits their environment. What’s more, it’s easy enough for them to buy, install and use that they’re actually using it.

Which gives you some idea of how far behind the likes of Nokia are, and how long users have been waiting for this revolution to happen.

Then there’s the New Yorker cover, all drawn on the iPhone:

Colombo’s phone drawing is very much in the tradition of a certain kind of New Yorker cover, and he doesn’t see the fact that it’s a virtual finger painting as such a big deal. “Imagine twenty years ago, writing about these people who are sending these letters on their computer.” But watching the video playback has made him aware that how he draws a picture can tell a story, and he’s hoping to build suspense as he builds up layers of color and shape.

What I like about his story is that a) he has all the tools he needs in his pocket, just like the angler and the cello guy and b) he talked about not feeling too exposed—the painter, painting in a public place–because everyone assumed he was just checking email. This is a significant mini revolution in itself; a few years back, pre-Palm, someone poking around on a small screen in a public place might have seemed weird, but now the idea of what we do in social spaces has changed entirely.

(Now someone standing on a corner reading a paper or watching the world go by is viewed with suspicion.)

I’m no shill for Apple, but I think there’s a compound shift taking place here: by keeping the design elegant, making it easy for developers and users, the iPhone has captured the imagination of both. These guys may not be angling and tuning in a few years’ time, but already significant rivers have been crossed.

Now users have access to functions and features that they may not have considered the terrain of computing, but which now are part of their lives.

Computing will never be the same.

The Failure of the Open Field

It’s great that Apple has created a new platform with the iPhone and the App Store. But it’s also a ripping indictment of the personal computer industry—and cellphone industry—thus far. And not to be too nice to Apple: The beautiful stuff we’re seeing with the iPhone is mainly about pastime—not about productivity (or creativity.)

Here’s what Apple has done right: It’s created a beautiful device that works and seduces. It’s created a single environment and process for people to be able to buy, download and install applications. And then it’s set some standards so things don’t get out of hand.

This is something that should have been done years ago. Microsoft had oh so long to come up with a way for third-party developers to produce good applications and have them certified and delivered in a way that makes it easy for consumers to install them (and the developers to make a decent living from them.) Instead we have a world where increasingly users are reluctant to download apps because even the best of them come front-loaded with crapware and configuration changing tweaks.

Nokia and the other big cellphone players had a decade to get their act together: To make phones connect seamlessly with computers, and for third party developers to come up with applications that made their devices compelling. I hate installing anything on my N95 because I know it’s a nightmare. Why bother?

Now Apple have done what needed to be done. They’ve done well and they deserve to take over the market for these reasons alone. Now the iPhone has become an extraordinary device capable of some spine-tingling stuff. Computers, finally, are tapping into the creativity of individual developers. And at a price point that’s not free, but for most people is as cheap as makes no difference.

I doubt Microsoft will get it. I doubt Nokia will get it. That makes me sad. But I also have a deeper regret. That, because it’s Apple, I don’t think we’ll now see the really full potential of software ideas and development, because Apple is still a very closed-in world. That is part of the reason for its success. Making everything a single pipe tends either succeeds spectacularly or fails dismally.

But it also caps its potential. By acknowledging this success we’ve also admitted that the online chaos that we thought would work, would somehow organize itself, has not worked. Try to find a decent application for WIndows XP. Or for your N95. Try to browse and just see what’s out there, and experiment. You’re brave if you do. Apple’s walled garden approach is a roaring success because we’ve failed to make the unmown field work. And we had long enough.

From the Desk of David Pogue – So Many iPhone Apps, So Little Time – NYTimes.com