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Apple to iPhone Users: Big Brother is Watching?

Posted by: Olga Kharif on August 06, 2008

I just read a report that claims that Apple can remotely disable any app on your iPhone. Scary? You bet. I am having flashbacks to George Orwell’s “1984.”

What I don’t understand is, why Apple needs the capability. Purportedly, it’s to deal with viruses that may jump onto the phones. But the thing is, wireless carriers’ networks catch and disarm viruses already. For years, wireless service providers have been responsible for protecting handsets from attacks, and they’ve done a decent job. And while today’s phones are much smarter and more vulnerable to attacks, carriers’ security has been beefed up as well.

One could argue that Apple needs to be more involved, since the iPhone can also access Wi-Fi networks. But I don’t buy that: For starters, most iPhone users tap into Wi-Fi at home, and their networks are likely to be secured. If you accidentally download a virus over a public hotspot, the next time you log into your wireless carrier’s network, the carrier will isolate and destroy that virus. The only instance when Apple may need to get involved is in the case of customers using their iPhones exclusively on Wi-Fi connections. But I bet the percentage of people like that is quite small.

Apple’s meddling raises a lot of privacy concerns. If Apple can disable your applications, it may also know whom you call, which Web sites you go to, how much time you spend Web browsing. It already knows which applications you download via iTunes. My feeling is, Apple has just opened a whole can of worms.

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Reader Comments

Nick G []

August 7, 2008 03:57 PM

It is a pity but it is true. We live in a world of networks. There is no more PC as a private computer so we need to be much more careful what kind of information we store to our iPod (funny, isn't it?) and the level of security we have been "guaranteed". Last month Volkswagen presented their vision about cars at 2028. According to VW after 20 years there will be car-robots offered as a service. The whole traffic would be managed by permanent data exchange between the vehicles. The issue is that this car-robot would be able to access your personal office/home data in case you decide to work during your commute. Sounds as an advantage but we're facing to legal right called - privacy.


August 7, 2008 04:02 PM

Your bill shows who you called and how long you called as well as where in the world you called from. You paid for a service that will produce an itemized bill on demand and can tell you whose phone in the family did what.

If a relative or so called friend of mine abused the privaledge of using a phone of mine, I would want proof that's strong enough to hold up in court.

Apple has the right to keep it's product safe for the consumer and free of attempts to use their product in a manor not intended by Apple or to attempt to steal it's services.

Just ask Apples permission to use your application and be done with it.

Chet Malino


August 7, 2008 05:33 PM

apple demonstrated the capability to disable and wipe an iphone remotely in one of their press conferences to show users how their information could be protected if their phone is lost or stolen.


August 7, 2008 06:03 PM

Do you have statistical evidence for this statement?

"For starters, most iPhone users tap into Wi-Fi at home, and their networks are likely to be secured."

Perhaps you use yours at home.


August 7, 2008 06:16 PM

Makes perfect sense to me. Apple has a high 'quality of service' mandate to uphold, so if there are any apps out there that aren't up to par, Apple needs to reserve the ability to block them, or at least warn users before they're run.

Sure, there's a danger that Apple will start blocking apps that compete with their own, or apps that do things Apple doesn't like. In those cases the third-party app vendors/distributors have legal tools to their disposal such as anti-trust laws and the EFF.

Just think of it this way -- if your iPhone crashes because of some little-known app you just installed on it, who do you blame? No one ever blames the little guy.

If you're an app developer that's pissed off by this, that just means you don't want to play by Apple's rules. If that's the case, go find another platform to code your app on (or even better, build your own one).



August 7, 2008 07:08 PM

What privacy concern?
What planet is the author of this article from?

RIM's blackberries have had this capability (ability to remotely enable/disable applications or even completely wipe clear your phone of any data) for years ...

Any mail service provider (pick any ... gmail, hotmail, etc) can read your email and/or delete it. Gmail already scans your email to place ads on the page.

Google records your search behavior, what links you click on etc ...


August 7, 2008 07:17 PM

apple knows what i download through iTunes? is that relavant simply to music or everything?

will hill

August 7, 2008 07:32 PM

Only free software is free of these problems. "Product Activation" and customer tracking have been done for years by Microsoft, for example. Visit Debian and the Free Software Foundation for viable alternetives to third party control of your communications and work.

Johnny Bugatti

August 7, 2008 09:13 PM

Where are you getting your information from? This is not true?!?!?!

"If you accidentally download a virus over a public hotspot, the next time you log into your wireless carrier’s network, the carrier will isolate and destroy that virus."

And no - not really here either:

" For years, wireless service providers have been responsible for protecting handsets from attacks, and they’ve done a decent job."

Carriers are only looking after attacks on there network, not on your handset...

Wow - BusinessWeek, I hope this is a blog entry because you need to get the facts right...


August 8, 2008 03:36 PM

If you read it carefully, the URL tucked away in core services would retrieve a list of unauthorized apps FROM Apple. Your iPhone carries out the deletion locally if a match is found; Apple doesn't look at your iPhone remotely and filter through your apps until it finds one that matches the list. So this is NOT Apple watching your iPhone and finding out what apps you have loaded.

BTW a "secured" wifi at home doesn't stop you from getting viruses. It can block attacks, but if the user downloads and execute a malicious program, their router isn't going to block them.

Also, I've never heard of ATT scanning my phone for viruses - it doesn't happen. Files retrieved from ATT's network maybe scanned for viruses, but once a file is on your phone (say from a wifi hotspot) - ATT isn't going to do anything to it. If they did, you really WOULD have case of Big brother looking at your iPhone.

Bottom line... Apple isn't meddling; it's not even looking.

A.Scott Clement

August 9, 2008 01:54 PM

"My feeling is, Apple has just opened a whole can of worms."

Wrong. Apple has not "just opened a can of worms." Apple is selling a "can of worms." The only people opening that can are the ones who are buying and using the phones.


August 10, 2008 09:29 PM

You are being too paranoid. Apple knows what they are doing. They don't care who you call, what websites you go to or how much time you spend web browsing. That's trivial information.

The most plausible reason why they can remotely disable an app on your iPhone (or iPod Touch) is probably just to destroy viruses, which is a good thing, and you can thank apple if they ever save your iPhone. It doesn't matter why they need that capability, it's Apple's product.

Electronics Technician

July 22, 2009 02:23 PM

Folks, the problems discussed in the thread are just the typical data transfer privacy issues. Smart phones such as the iPhone bring about a new set of privacy concerns:

1. At anytime the FBI can enable the mic in the phone to here what you are saying.
2. The GPS can be enabled to know where you are.
3. The accelerometer can be enabled to know if you are walking, running or driving, and at precisely what time.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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