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back to article Google vanishes Android apps from citizen phones

Google has reached out over the airwaves and removed a pair of applications from users' Android phones, saying the two apps violated its terms of service. Like Apple, Google has a "kill switch" that allows it to remotely remove mobile apps that have already been installed by end users. The tool is mentioned in the terms and …

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Pirate

I Feel Better Already

"Google insists that the tool will only be used for good."

Googs, you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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Arguably...

there's more of a need for a kill switch with Android. Apps aren't reviewed before posting, so in theory anyone could publish anything.

I know the Google conspiracy theorists will circle around this one, but I'm glad it's there. Users have demonstrated themselves to be utter idiots, and I don't doubt that barely any of them read the warnings that say your hilarious fart app wants access to "perform functions that may cost you money" and "read your SMS inbox".

There needs to be an off-switch for fraudsters, and personally I think it's worth the price.

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Happy

Agreed - Its needed.

Its a balance to be sure, but you have to give your apps an unreasonable amount of trust tbh.

I actually hope that Google do scan the crap out of anything that hits the Market and kills anything suspicious.

If I didn't trust Google, (more or less ;-) then I wouldn't be using an Android now would I? D'oh!

There have been a few apps that said they needed access to my contacts (which is way out of line) which I binned... but how many less technical users will think twice?

HTC Desire ftw! LOL.

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Go

How About ...

... it's mine. I paid for it. I'll fuck it up any way I want to since I do own it. No questions asked, no conference calls, no dirty looks just me an my hammer reconfiguring my property any way i want. Or installing what software I want no matter how it wrecks my property.

Oh I forget, it's the digital age and we don't own property any longer. We just rent it. Kind of like beer. You only rent it too then piss it away. But if I wanted to, I could buy a six pack and pour every drop down the drain. But I'll just be damed if I'll ever buy a product from an brewery that will pours it down the drain for me without asking for permission first.

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Re: Arguably...

That was going to be what I researched before commenting. Is the vetting process with Android as strict and scrutinising as it is with Apple?

I completely agree with you.

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WTF?

@Alistair and others ...

... your argument tends towards "The OS manufacturer knows best", and "People need to be protected from themselves". No doubt, then, when later versions of your favourite OS have kill switches so that you cannot install whatever software you want because it hasn't been "approved", you'll be as much in support?

The installation of a kill switch into something you have bought, thus retaining to the manufacturer control over it, undermines the whole nature of ownership. It should not be tolerated, and actively fought.

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@Intractable ... Fair enough but...

The kill switch only applies to Apps downloaded using the Marketplace which have Google's terms and conditions attached to them. You can install apps on your Android phone from anywhere, even write your own and install it. Therefore Google have no control over your device and what you install on it.

The marketplace is a safer place where most average Joes will enter to get apps and they might well be ones that need protecting "from themselves".

Imagine if Google's own marketplace hosts an app that is rogue - Google know about it, they have the technology to stop it, people's phones are getting pwned left right and centre and they sit back and do nothing - there would be outcries from the media about how much safer Apple was than Google.

If you want to install an app from another source - go ahead. If you want to back up your apps so they can be reinstalled after they have been remotely pulled then go ahead, they won't be killed if you manually install them.

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Go

Its a feature not a bug - firefox AMO has the same ability

Its needed in case a bad on slips through.

Not rocket science.

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IT Angle

So you like to be treated as an ignorant irresponsible money bag ?

Because there is no reason for them to REMOVE the app.

They could, for instance flag it to display a message at launch explaining the potential problem and asking for removal or not, THAT would be talking to me like an human and respecting MY property.

Again, that would you say if your car dealer came into your house, cracked open the garage and took whatever he wants in "your" car ? (he is covered it is line 18 of your 25 page "contracts" that says that you pay for the care but he still owns it, you know the one ? )

How come that the fact it "seems" immaterial makes any such thing acceptable ?

Something that is build is mean to be used, or you don't build it.

And humans there NEVER able to resist using anything they built, so .... it will be used and used and abused.

Again the problem is that with people like you quitting from exercising any responsibility and judgment and happily delegating judgment about what is "good" or "bad" to a third party (here a business company), and even saying thanks when they are invaded and stolen from, people like "me" and all the ones that can't tolerate such things have their basic liberties more and more eroded every day.

So if you could please remember that you are a citizen and not only an infantile consumer, I would be glad.

as if you cared of course.

Cheers

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@Intractable Potsherd

Pretty obvious straw man argument there.

Besides, the bigger point here that you're avoiding is the open nature of Android. Don't want a killswitch? Download a ROM with the killswitch removed, install and enjoy. Unlike the iPhone, pretty much every Android phone has a total separation between software and hardware that allows you to do anything you want with it. Thus, it has absolutely no effect on the whole nature of ownership.

Default safe setting for the plebs, available tweaks for the tweakers.

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Market Place only - fine

As long as the kill switch is part of the Marketplace app (likely) and can only remove apps installed via the marketplace (not quite so likely I think) then I have no problem with it.

The MarketPlace app fully manages your applications thus it can: Add new ones, upgrade existing and remove existing ones. You would expect that it could technically do the latter in the case of a revenue model where apps were to be 'rented' - so maybe I rent a sat nav app for 1 month whilst in Italy.

If you don't like it uninstall the MarketPlace app - at least you can on Android!

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Eh?

"As long as the kill switch is part of the Marketplace app (likely) and can only remove apps installed via the marketplace (not quite so likely I think)"

Surely one rather depends on the other?

In any case, the kill switch is indeed Marketplace-only. Don't like it, don't use it.

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@Annakan

"They could, for instance flag it to display a message at launch explaining the potential problem and asking for removal or not.."

Using which API? The one every Android developer is forced to use? Oh wait ... that's Apple's developers. So which API are you recommending Google use to insert this "launch" message?

The reality is that by using the Marketplace to install the app, Google obtains a mechanism (activity record and device id) to update or remove the app that is not necessarily available in the app, itself. What you describe implies greater intrusiveness than Google has ... the ability to get into every app's code and modify whatever they want.

If you received word that Google had the ability to reach into and reprogram any Android app, as you suggest they should, would that make you feel better?

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Seriously?

"Using which API?"

Um, the OS that launches the app. In the part of the OS that launches the app, it'd check the app against a list of naughty apps. Before the app itself even actually starts.

You know, like OS X warns you if you try to run a program you downloaded which hasn't been run before.

No "greater intrusiveness" involved, no "ability to get into every app's code" needed.

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FAIL

Ah, the libertarian contingent arrives

> ... it's mine. I paid for it. I'll fuck it up any way I want

> to since I do own it. No questions asked, no conference

> calls, no dirty looks just me an my hammer reconfiguring

> my property any way i want. Or installing what software I

> want no matter how it wrecks my property.

Shorter Doug: if I want to host a botnet from the 'privacy' of my own phone, and, say, send out spam emails and SMS messages (or even computerized telemarketing calls!) without my knowing it, I should have every right to do so!

-fred

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Big Brother

Power always gets abused

Well I, for one, AM very annoyed by this abuse of power and take it as additional evidence of the growing evil within Google. Are we just past the point where it is possible to design a safe OS even for a so-called small device like a phone? Or how about degrees of death? Rather than just assume an absolute power to kill any application the user might want to run, Google starts with lower levels of death, like a system to first tell the user "This application seems to be doing something dangerous. Please click here for more information and countermeasures."

Not much of a defense, but I don't really blame Google for becoming evil since the rules of the game basically require companies to become evil--especially if a company wants to be 'successful' as the current laws define it. The laws are clearly evolving in the direction of more evil, though that is only the natural consequence of a money-dominated political system where evil companies are the same companies that are most concerned with and willing to bribe politicians to write the laws they find most convenient. Just ask BP and ExxonMobile and Goldman Sachs and their evil peers how things work these days. Another minor loophole in quasi-defense of Google: the current laws were mostly created before Google existed, so Google isn't even responsible for the old part of it.

None of this makes evil into a good thing--but I sadly believe that America has passed the point of no return. Amusingly enough, I think that President Obama, many Democrats, and even a few true Republicans understand the real problems with corporatism as a political system. Companies are NOT human beings, but only immoral fictions. However, the neo-GOP is too well entrenched (and too well funded by corrupt companies) for the problems to be fixed.

Google is just going with the flow--the flow of corruption.

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Pirate

Yes, but what...

> "This application seems to be doing something dangerous. Please click here for more

> information and countermeasures."

Yes, but what if the program uses social engineering to trick the users first?

i.e. imagine http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/03/29/cross_days_trojan/ , but for Android phones and distributed "legally" through the Android store.

The game could just tell users in advance that Android will sound a false alarm and that the user should just ignore it. Say we have an ignoramus major, Stanley Stupid, will just abide by the warning and ignore Androids warning as advised (or maybe he's doing it at three in the morning half-asleep/is drunk/is high on substances whose legality is questionable/is "special"). Oops, there goes the user's address book online credentials for Amazon mobile.

Now, let's say Stanley Stupid is friends with a "typical"(*1) lawyer named Richard Fish, who suggests that Stan there sue Google (instead of the developer, who conveniently used a fake name and non-existent e-mail address to post to the Android store and provided the address and phone number of a strip club in Jamaica). Also, Fish is well aware that Google is already in trouble with the Feds over the Street View Wi-Fi sniffing hoohah. Guess what happens next.

There are a lot of things that can earn one a Darwin Award, but downloading a trojan disguised as a game that cleverly fibs to the user so he ignores any warning the OS throws up isn't one of them.

(*1) Typical here means typical in the sense of how TV portrays them.

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Go

Google Has Trolls Too ...

... and they all just downvoted your comment.

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Pint

AC Engineering

If it was a very good social engineering, it would probably pop up that message on its own, but as a "cover" for asking to send data home/gain su to access other data. After all, if you're Joe Average, when you get a full-screen pop-up that can't be avoided that says "This application seems to be doing something dangerous. Please click here for more information and countermeasures.", are you going to click on the little "No" button, or on the big "Please click here" button?

The first "application" could probably find a way to interfere with what is being displayed, and thus the "please click here" can download another application, which asks for all imaginable permissions, except the end user sees only nice reassuring messages by Android that they're "removing" or "isolating" the application and "retrieving data"...

I'll just drink to it being there, but in a way that hopefully serves more as a deterrent than as an actual "kill switch".

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Terminator

@Shannon Jacobs

"Are we just past the point where it is possible to design a safe OS even for a so-called small device like a phone? "

Yes, we are. We left it behind when the complexity level of our machines exceeded that of an analog telephone. PBCAK -that is, lazy & ignorant users- and social engineering conspire to make security for these small devices an unattainable idea.

Add to that that many smartphone applications have lots of security implications - SMS, schedules, geolocation, remote payment systems... - and you get the actual situation, which is a total nightmare.

"This application seems to be doing something dangerous. Please click here for more information and countermeasures."

There is a large % of users who will just close the warning message and ignore it. I earn my living as an IT consultant and have seen this behaviour thousands of times. These users think something along the lines of "the IT guy will fix it", "I'm in a hurry and the job needs to be done" or "I want my porn NOW!"

So a kill switch seems to me a sensible -though partial - solution, and I haven't any issues with it, as long as it's not abused.

As other commenters said, you are free to use the marketplace or obtain your software somewhere else.

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Thumb Down

Whe cares what nameless people say?

If you actually believe in your mumblings, put your name on them.

I think you are attempting to describe an extremist scenario where Google might have good reason to use the big bomb.

Oh wait. Perhaps the reason you don't want to use your name is because you write so poorly and unclearly? In that case, you should include you name so we know where to direct our sympathies.

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Another reason to buy a China Phone

They just sell me a phone with lots of features, not a lifestyle and certainly not a nanny to "protect" me. I've bought three non-chinese phones since I got my Sciphone G2. And I'm presently using my Sciphone G2 while the others have either been given away or are gathering dust.

My next buy will be another china phone. They've got wifi, java--all the goodies. It costs less than half a comparable phone from the majors. And nobody has a kill switch for it.

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Anonymous Coward

A fool and his money are soon parted

One phone is enough for me, until I grow another head.

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Troll

Yeah,

and the People's Eavesdropping and Credit Liberation apps was a nice bonus, too!

I jest, I jest. Sort of. Maybe.

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Flame

Wow, that sucks

I thought freedom from this kind of crap was the main selling point for Android phones. I admit I wasn't really in the market for a smartphone anyway, but if I was, it would have been Android powered, until I read this. Unless there's some way to turn that feature off, it's a deal breaker.

If it asked your permission, that would be one thing. That would be a good feature in fact. I could probably even be convinced that a no-prompt kill switch was acceptable if it were reserved for genuine emergencies (e.g. an app the exploits a security hole and trashes your phone), but that Google would use it for apps that were merely "practically useless" suggests they have no intention of practicing such restraint.

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Anonymous Coward

blah blah

Did you even read the article? The apps misrepresented its intention in a bid to get people to download them. The apps were for research only with no other use for the user. The researchers removed the apps from the repository and Google removed them from the phones because they serve no purpose.

Google have stated that this removal feature will not be used much, and will be reserved for Genuine emergencies like security risks etc.

And by your attitude it appears that you won't be getting any kind of smart phone in the future. You say you weren't looking for one anyway so why bother commenting!!

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Big Brother

blah

Did you even read what you posted? If the apps do nothing and serve no purpose then where is the genuine emergency? If they delete apps simply because they do nothing and the description was wrong then they will delete anything they feel like. Removing them from the store is fine but deleting them from other people's property is not.

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Stop

@AC

"Google have stated that this removal feature will not be used much, and will be reserved for Genuine emergencies like security risks etc." - but this was not a security risk, at least according to the article: it was merely useless. Google have undermined their own argument with the first documented use of this "facility".

There is something very wrong with a business plan that says that the purchaser of a tool is at the mercy of what the manufacturer says is acceptable.

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Anonymous Coward

But it *was* misused

This wasn't an emergency was it? A waste of time perhaps, but not an emergency and certainly not worth using the kill switch.

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@AC: blah blah

>> "Google have stated that this removal feature will not be used much, and will be reserved for Genuine emergencies like security risks etc."

I don't get it, first Google claim that there was no harm or risk, since the app basically did nothing, yet they went ahead and used the kill switch they claim will only be used for "emergencies". How is this not abuse of the power?

They have control to do something which is controversial and claim to reserve the right in case of an emergency, then go ahead and exercise that power on a self-proclaimed non-emergency situation. And on top of that, they use double-speak to convince us that "no, really, we don't mean to use it, it's only for emergencies. Really. For sure. Trust Us (tm)."

-dZ.

-dZ.

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Harmless???

The two applications were designed to be able to pull remote code down to rootkit your device. They phoned home and at any time could brick your phone or worse.

One app was designed to be a fake app for promoting Twilight. Although they were only proof of concept by a security researcher - they could have been used for malicious purposes if the backdoor had been exploited. Hence leaving apps on the phone that were constantly phoning home ready to download malware and bypass the Davlik VM is not something you would really want on your phone. Anyone clued up wouldn't have downloaded it, anyone a little bit switched on would have removed it themselves already. If you really wanted to run the app you could have downloaded it via anywhere on the internet (not the Marketplace) and ran it - or just run the app installer directly from your phone and it wouldn't have been removed.

The researcher was actually impressed that the apps were remotely removed.

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Buying an overpowered PC and then using BOINC to run units for the SETI project

serves no useful purpose and is for research only. That doesn't mean somebody out there should have a kill switch that will remove from my system. Okay, so technically I gave up on SETI and now run it for three other programs that are probably a bit more useful, but the principle still applies.

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@DZ-Jay

Android users are fond of being in control, and this article proves that google has a back door, which is very unsettling. I am very glad that you recognize this abuse as controversial, however you mis attributed the "For sure. Trust Us (tm)" - that's the slogan for the apple mobile camp.

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Big Brother

It's the way of the future people

The MAN will decide what you can/can't do, and what you can know and read....

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Only If ...

... you buy into the technology. And so far there are alternative communication paths. The problem is, people will give up their very souls just to be cool and modern. I actually feel sorry for them, no wait ... I don't either. You buy into "the system" you get what you pay for so stop the whining.

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How does this work?

Can they nuke any program you download and install, or is it only programs obtained through their appstore?

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only through the app store

only apps managed (i.e. downloaded by, and monitored for updates by) google marketplace

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Anonymous Coward

Presumably they can do anything at all

For example, run a root shell, install software to spy on you, turn your phone into a paperweight, etc.

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What's to stop you reinstalling?

This isn't the nicest thing to happen to you, but as someone else said, the Android Market isn't vetted, so perhaps in their case it's more needed. If they're removing apps for being malicious rather than being competition, then maybe that's fair enough.

This being Android, however, what's to stop you reinstalling the app from another location?

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Unhappy

Look at it from a software developer angle....

You've developed some software for the Android and decided to sell it. People buy it. Google decide to flick the "kill" switch. Your reputation is pants, and you have all those people knocking on your door asking for their money back.

Who would sensibly develop apps for any platform that has such a switch?

Google should carry the can for these costs, it will give them a chance to reflect on the seriousness of flicking that switch: perhaps developers need to pay a nominal sum to Google as insurance against such a thing happening.

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WTF?

I'd put a title, but I can't be arsed...

"[...] perhaps developers need to pay a nominal sum to Google as insurance against such a thing happening."

That is SO Chicago...

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So no one "sensibly" develops for iPhone?

Assuming you read the article (please say you did read the article and didn't comment after just reading a paragraph or summary...please!!), should developers never develop for the iPhone, then?

And, since the kill switch was used on some software (research notwithstanding) with a sole purpose of tricking users into downloading an app that actually could damage your phone's OS, do you then have a problem with having a framework in place used to remove such cruft? With the tons of apps that allow you to download pr()n that haven't been killed like this, is there some pattern you are imagining that makes you think Google would arbitrarily kill apps even though they do exactly what they say without the app stealing your info or otherwise infecting your phone? Compare that to what the pr()n apps Apple kills before they ever hit the app store. And, no, I don't watch pr()n on my friggin' phone.

Kill some malware, tin-foil-hat wearing psychos yell, "Google is the devil!" Let the malware be, maybe put some warnings up but give the user a choice that allows their personal information stolen, wannabe-victims yell, "Google is the devil!"

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@AC 25/6

>>"You've developed some software for the Android and decided to sell it. People buy it. Google decide to flick the "kill" switch. Your reputation is pants, and you have all those people knocking on your door asking for their money back"

What about:

There's *no* kill switch. You've developed some software for the Android and decided to sell it. People buy it. Google decide to say your software is a security risk and mail people suggesting they uninstall it ASAP. Your reputation is pants, and you have all those people knocking on your door asking for their money back.

With or without a kill switch, were Google to decide to declare your software dangerous, the end result seems likely to be much the same.

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Boffin

Jon Oberheide

.. has all the details on his blog about it

http://jon.oberheide.org/blog/2010/06/25/remote-kill-and-install-on-google-android/

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Big Brother

To Summarize

The Marketplace is just as much a backdoor as the apps in question. Good to know.

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Publicitiy stunt

A day or so after a company reports (rightly or wrongly, it doesn't matter as the PR-damage was done) that 20% of apps on the Android Marketplace are potential malware, Google pulls a publicity stunt designed to make the droid-drones feel all warm and cuddly about themselves ... 'oooh look, Google will keep us safe'

I find that rather pathetic, especially when - as the poster above mentions - these apps are being painted as 'completely harmless' by Google. If they are completely harmless, and so useless that people are removing them shortly after downloading, why the need to kill them? Could it be that they aren't actually completely harmless? If they were only breaking the T+C's of Google's marketplace, shouldn't Google's actions have been limited to removing the apps from the store but leaving them untouched on people's phones (which is what Apple do when this sort of thing happens on their store)?

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Big Brother

OTT

Whatever the justification, Google's action is a bit OTT. Why not just block the application with an accompanying informative message advising uninstallation and include a means for the user to remove the block if they see fit?

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Lesser of Two Evils

Until recently I was pretty cagey about Google. Actually, I'm still pretty cagey about Google. But I admit I was lured by the shiny smartphones, and in a contest between Google and Apple, I decided I'd sooner put up with ads and be free to do what I please than be controlled at every end and turn; so I went with Android.

Does this story make me regret that decision? Certainly not.

"But unlike Google, to our knowledge Jobs has never pulled his 'kill switch' lever."

Which presumably makes their overall tyrannical approach to marketing okay now?

It must be difficult for the Reg when there's a direct opposition between Google and Apple and they're forced to decide which is the lesser of two evils. And that word 'evil' doesn't half get used a lot in articles and comments round here, doesn't it? Between the Reg and the Daily Mail using it for everything and everybody they're somewhat distrustful of, you have to wonder if the word has any real meaning left any more.

I'm not overly happy about what's been done, though I think I'd have to agree with Pablo: the system should certainly ask permission before it uninstalls anything. If it explained and asked me, I'd probably agree - I haven't found many apps* yet that I can't live without - but we know Google, and we know they don't like to ask permission in case people say no. I'm not sure if Google's sneakiness in that respect is worse than Apple's entirely overt attitude that an iPhone is still their property so they have the right to do what they like with it.

That said, I'd probably have to disagree with Shannon Jacobs: if an application is found to be dangerous I think an immediate execution is probably the only way to go, as long as it's either my decision or the company asks me permission to do it.

---

* I'm not sure if the term 'app' is Apple's trademarked property yet.

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Where's All The Screaming?

Let me get this straight. You buy the device, and own it, and subsequently install software of your choosing, and Google will remove the software if they don't like it and there's nothing you can do about it.

Where's all the righteous indignation that always follows articles talking about Microsoft Windows' kill switches and the like? I'm glad vehicle manufactures haven figured out how to do this. Buy a foreign part for your Ford truck and have Ford suddenly deactivated it at 70MPH on the interstate because they don't like who you bought it from. Wait, GM can do that with OnStar: shut you down when, well .... any time they feel like it. Oh I forget...has to be a ligetimate reason. Yeah right.

Wow, the electronic age is fabulous, just fabulous. I'm so pleased there are corporations out there that can think for me and make the right decisions for me. Those old farts who resist intrusions into their privacy and personal decisions are just so old fashioned and out of touch.

No wait, I'm and old fart like that. Where's my Glock?

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