App Criminality - App Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Learning Lark

For those not paying attention to the last decade, the market for mobile devices has been booming and with it, so has the demand for Apps to take care of monotonous tasks that would normally require conscious effort, like thinking. Mobile devices are being empowered with numerous responsibilities, from helping users lose weight to guiding us through airports.

While there are some things that apps can’t do, it only seems to be a matter of time before the phrase, “there’s an app for that,” is actually true. Even breaking the law — yes, there are apps for that.

When discussing the illegality that one can get up to in regards to app and mobile programing, there are a few different angles to consider. First are the apps that actually break real laws that are on the books. Recently in China, an app was deemed illegal because it allowed users to read books that the Chinese government had banned. Card counting in your head may not be illegal, but using a computerized device to count those cards for you is very illegal when done inside casinos. Now that we have reached the dawn of Google Glass, casinos are reaching the height of their paranoia fearing that people will secretly try to use apps to bring the house down.

Now, a card counting map in and of itself can be used for entertainment purposes or home use. So it is only circumstantially illegal. What is illegal regardless of context, however, is hijacking an aircraft.

Hugo Teso, a commercial pilot, security consultant, and now app developer, has found a way to theoretically hack into the operating system of a plane and take control of it from a mobile device. While the app itself has (thankfully) yet to be tested on an actual plane, this is absolutely an illegal app. The only good that could come from developing such a program is companies like Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers will take notice and (hopefully) fix any weaknesses in their own software.

After the obvious, there are then apps that you have to break the law in order to use. Such an act is known as jailbreaking, a way of hacking your mobile device’s operating system. The reasons for this range from trying to get your phone to operate across numerous wireless networks to customizing your phone’s interface. The problem with jailbreaking is that the backends for all of these mobile devices are copyright protected. Further, once a phone is jailbroken, it is also unlocked, meaning that it can be used in numerous illegal ways, so much so that you could serve hard time for it. While there are members of our government, notably President Obama, who oppose removing the jail time from jailbreaking, no ground has been made yet in reform.

In cases of hijacking planes to jailbreaking phones, there is a lot of black and white, legally speaking. Between these extremes, however, lies a more bizarre and potentially scarier grey area.

As mentioned earlier, Google Glass will soon be part of our daily existence. While the system and device remains in trials, there is already controversy surrounding its privacy capabilities. If you enjoy the “How It Feels” video on the Glass website, you might notice something. Glass’s point of view photography and video recording allows for a person to record anything and any moment with only the standard apps that come with the device.

Winky is an app for Google Glass that, with a wink, allows you to discreetly take a picture of whatever you are looking at. Since you can now use an image to search Google, it would be easier to blast anyone’s identity over the internet just by taking their picture, and they’ll never even know it. Since facial recognition apps have been out for the better part of a year now, it can be theoretically possible to scan a crowd and profile everyone in it, in a matter of winks.

Just yesterday, Google announced their decision not to allow facial recognition software for its Glass devices, in favor of helping people maintain their right to privacy. In a Google+ post, the company stated that “As Google has said for several years, we won’t add facial recognition features to our products without having strong privacy protections in place. With that in mind, we won’t be approving any facial recognition Glassware at this time.”

In the meantime, there are still plenty of way to amuse yourself and break the law, one way or another, with your smart devices. Though the powers that be seem to be sparing us the threat of strangers playing Big Brother for the time being, it seems that it will only be a matter of time before those less scrupulous will find a way to play voyeur with the world.

After all, if you can jailbreak a phone or tablet, why not Google Glass? Wink, wink.