I recently went to buy new cell phones for my wife and me. Verizon Wireless had been nagging me to do this over the phone or online for a while and Ive been due for a “free” upgrade for almost a year, but I want to see and try the phone in my own hands first. It was an agonizing experience. I knew every step of the way that I was being robbed. I only stick with them because theyve got the best network in my area.
It must be in the nature of big telecom companies to take every last penny they can get away with. They operate as if the whole thing could come crashing down any minute and theyd better take all the money they can while they can. In their shoes, maybe Id do the same thing.
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But it really makes me sympathetic when I read Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal writing about the overbearing control the telecoms have over their users operation of their own phones. Mossberg analogizes it to PCs: Imagine your ISP telling you what programs you could run on your PC. (In fact, if youre a Comcast user running BitTorrent you dont need to do a lot of imagining.)
I know where Mossbergs coming from here and I admire this part of his work. He advocates unflinchingly for the interests of the consumer. But hes missing, or at least not addressing, an important point in this specific subject. He argues that the mobile phone business would be a lot better if customers were able, as they are able with their PCs on the Internet, to install and run whatever applications they please. What would happen?
Apple has been asking those same questions. They probably led Apple to initially deny the option of running native apps on the iPhone. After being shown by hackers that native apps were coming, with or without permission, Apple will release an SDK, but they know this stuff is complicated: “It will take until February to release an SDK because were trying to do two diametrically opposed things at once—provide an advanced and open platform to developers while at the same time protect iPhone users from viruses, malware, privacy attacks, etc.”
What Will Apple Do
Once phone users have the same freedom to install and run programs that PC users have, the floodgates of malware will open up. Apples interim, crossed-fingers approach will be to create a digital signature system like the one they just released on Leopard (so the OS X code is handy, anyway) to provide accountability, if not actual protection, against malware. Presumably such signatures will be required for loading apps on the iPhone.
Remember Microsoft created such a digital signature system for executables. They started requiring them on Vista x64 kernel mode code and encountered a lot of resistance as a consequence. Remember also that they later clarified that:
In other words, it doesnt stop malware in and of itself, but it helps you to recognize both malware and legitimate code. This is a fair point, but its not exactly a security policy for “the rest of us,” as Apple might prefer for its own products.
Is this what the telcos are worried about? Are they protecting us from attack and complexity by rigidly defining what programs we can run on our phones? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. They just want a cut of whatever programs run on the phone.
Mossbergs hardly the first to raise these concerns. When Google offered to bid in the FTC auctions early next year they “suggested” several rules for the FTC to impose on the bidders, including allowing customers to run any app they wished. The FCC in fact agreed to some of the rules, only to have Verizon Wireless file suit in Federal Court objecting to the decision.
I have to agree with most of the calls for openness. Certainly its better than allowing an oligopolist gang to set all of the rules. I just wish the security implications were explored a little more clearly, because as sure as the suns coming up tomorrow morning, malware will bloom when the mobile platforms are opened up.
For years weve been hearing about the threat of mobile malware. For probably four or five years now, every December when security writers like me get pitched on the big security trends, vendors tell is that next year is the year of the rise of mobile malware. But so far its basically been all theory and very little implementation (and what malware there is out there is on the Symbian platform).
When the vendors are right and half the phones out there turn into mobile bots, will we regret the call for openness? Give people time. You still hear people talk about how things were better back when AT&T ran all telecom and you couldnt even own the telephone in your house. Sometimes things get more complicated as they get better. If mobile networks get more dangerous well find ways to cope, and the only sure thing is that the telecoms will find a way to make money on it.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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