Google last week remotely accessed thousands of Android smartphones and deleted apps that its users had downloaded – apps they owned, running on a device they bought, with cash they (probably) earned.
Scandalous! Well, actually I’ve left out a rather important bit of information – the apps were infected with a malicious virus that had the potential to steal personal data. Not so scandalous?
Big Brother is watching
Google’s latest Big Brother action raises a question that’s been brewing on the internet for a while now – ‘is it good that companies have ultimate control over the software running on our devices, and not us?’
This question was brought into even sharper focus in July 2009, when Amazon took a leaf (quite literally) out of George Orwell’s book and deleted his ‘1984’ novel from thousands of Kindles, without telling their owners.
To make it worse, Amazon’s excuse was far less noble than Google’s – it just ‘forgot’ that it didn’t own the rights to the book.
In Google we (have to) trust
While the philosophy of having ultimate control over your own software (which is already being expounded by angry commentators on Google’s blog) is compelling, it’s not very practical.
The only way it would make sense to have control is if you’d be happy to take 100% responsibility for avoiding malicious attacks on your smartphone.
Though if you really were prepared to take that responsibility then I assume you’d do nothing but tut disapprovingly when your child downloaded the wrong ‘Funny Kittens’ app, leading to a bombardment of texts extolling the benefits of herbal Viagra?
Companies should ultimately have the power to do what Google did last week and protect those of us who aren’t tech savvy and have fallen victim to hackers and scammers. However, that doesn’t mean Google and Amazon should be let off the hook.
Knock before you enter
It’s all about respect. If your house has just been burgled, the police don’t silently crawl through your window in the middle of the night, dust for fingerprints, and leave a post-it on your door.
So if Google or Amazon want to intrude onto your device – for whatever reason – they need to clearly explain what they are doing and why they’re doing it, before they do it.
The second thing is that the above two cases shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Amazon obviously needs to make sure it owns something before giving it away, and if it’s been stupid enough to break such an elementary rule then it should probably pay the costs and let people keep what they bought. Afterall, Orwell fans may not have shelled out £150 for a Kindle in the first place if they knew Big Brother really was watching.
As for Google, for two years it’s cheerfully ignored anyone pointing out the security risks of an unmoderated apps market. It was remarkably left to a blogger to inform the company of last week’s malware attack.
Why not just exercise some level of control over what appears on your app store Google? Then you won’t have to waste time and money fixing everyone’s phones when the downright inevitable happens.