Thursday, July 30, 2009

iPhone users ponder the price of freedom

Apple has created a pretty good earner for itself by carefully controlling the software users can download and install on their iPhones.

By vetting, approving and controlling the installation of only certain bits of code, Apple can take a clip on the ticket of every "authorized" application users choose to install.

This concept has obvious benefits for users. For a start, they can download new bits of code with reasonable confidence that they're free from malware and meet at least minimum standards of quality and performance.

On the downside, it makes the applications themselves more expensive and limits a user's choice to only those apps Apple itself chooses to allow. This was highlighted recently when it refused to allow Google's Voice product to be installed on its phones, for fear this would upset AT&T by adversely affecting its revenues from regular calls made by iPhone users.

Some users have decided they don't want Apple's imposed software censorship controlling what goes on their iPhone however, and have opted to "jailbreak" their mobile.

Jailbreaking involves circumventing the mechanisms that allow Apple to dictate what constitutes an approved (and thus, revenue-generating) application.

Apple have struck back by claiming that this practice threatens to crash the entire mobile phone system because it opens the doors to untested or malevolent applications that could play havoc with the network infrastructure.

A suitably "hacked" iPhone, Apple says, could create an effective denial of service attack by overloading a celltower, effectively bringing it to its knees.

Advocates of jailbreaking claim Apple is simply trying to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) with these claims. They point to the fact that android-based phones ought to pose the very same threat but that nothing bad has happened.

Indeed, when challenged, Apple seem unable to provide any proof that such attacks have ever taken place as a result of a phone that has been jail-broken.

Unfortunately for Apple, the sheer mass and brainpower of hackers will always overpower the attempts of any manufacturer to keep their products "locked" and under central control. It's only a matter of time (if it hasn't happened already) before users can jailbreak their own iPhones and install whatever software they choose -- without the need for Apple's blessing or any kind of
payment.

The ease with which Apple's iPhone encryption was cracked is clear proof that the hacker is mightier than the manufacturer.

No doubt a proliferation of jailbreak software will create a degree of mayhem as unsuspecting iPhone users end up loading their mobile with all sorts of malware that masquerades as a useful but uncertified application.

At least now, the choice is one that can be made by the iPhone user, rather than a manufacturer who sees the certification and distribution of applications as a major part of its revenue stream.

This may not see mobile networks crumbling under DOS attacks but it may spawn fertile new ground for evil little sods to install trojans, backdoors and viruses on iPhones. Only time will tell.

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