Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Big Brother is Watching...

... your iPhone.
"[A]n independent engineer discovered code inside the iPhone that suggested iPhones routinely check an Apple Web site that could, in theory trigger the removal of the undesirable software from the devices." [1]
We're all familiar with system updates: personal computers check with a server who sends them new programs to fix old ones. Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, and GNU/Linux all do it to a similar level of automation. System updates are important because they keep the system... well... up-to-date! In particular, it's a way to keep the computer in the hacking rat race: some people find loop holes to attack your computer, the OS designers patch the holes before they get exploited. As is the case here, these can also be abused, and it seems that the line between an "update" and a "malware" can be blurry... The movie "I, Robot" took this idea to the extreme when the main computer took complete control of the robots.

There are many reasons for using exclusively free software [2] but two of them jump to my mind here:
  • Without the source code, it's hard for computer writers to reverse engineer what programs actually do. So someone managed to uncover this "hidden" feature in the iPhone. What else does the iPhone do secretly that only Apple knows about? With free/open software, public scrutiny of the source code ensures that no hidden features can remain in the dark.
  • Even assuming that you trust Apple to be 100% just and ethical with this power to disable your applications remotely, can anyone be trusted to never make a mistake? Again, public scrutiny of the source code by many many more programmers contributes to better quality code, and faster bug fix.
I feel bad to even compare the OpenMoko device [3] to the iPhone, but if you're looking for a free, open alternative to the iPhone, this could be it. Mind you, I don't have one so I don't know if this gadget (more like a small computer than a phone at this point) is really any good... But if I finally convince myself to buy one (when the new batch arrives), I'll make sure to write a short review.

  1. BoingBoing Gagets, <http://gadgets.boingboing.net/2008/08/11/who-watches-the-watc.html>
  2. Philosophy of the GNU Project, <http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/>
  3. OpenMoko, <http://openmoko.com/>

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