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Big Brother Jobs Confirms that Apple can Remotely Control What is on your iPhone

by August 15, 2008
I am watching you

I am watching you

Word around the Internet last week that a software developer had discovered what amounted to a kill switch buried in the new iPhone 3G firmware has now been confirmed by Steve Jobs.

Discovered by developer Jonathan Zdziarski, author of iPhone Open Application Development and iPhone Forensics Manual, the latent kill switch hides in deep in the CoreLocation area of the iPhone 2.0.x firmware.  The particular piece of code points to a URL address that appears to be the start of an application blacklist:


According to Zdziarski, this suggests that the iPhone 3G will occasionally call up Apple without the owner’s knowledge to check what applications Apple has decided should not be allowed to run on the iPhone.

Steve Jobs has now confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that the capability does indeed exist in the new iPhone, but it is benevolent, as he is benevolent.  Jobs what ifs bad, malicious software accidentally getting through Apple’s screening for its Apps store, like what if someone writes code to steal personal information from the iPhone.  This will allow Apple to cleanse the iPhone of such evils.

According to Jobs:

Hopefully we will never have to pull that lever, but we would be irresponsible not to have a lever like that to pull.

That’s all well and good…ahem…BS…

Other smart phones on the market do not have a covert kill switch.

So why didn’t Apple tell consumers about this beneficial function before they bought their iPhones?

Why wait until someone stumbles across it and exposes it like some sort of conspiracy?

Based on past behavior by Apple, it is certainly no secret that they like to try to retain complete control over the software and hardware after they sell it to consumers.  It is also no secret that Apple was mightily vexed by iPhone owners who do not care for the level of control that Apple demands unlocking their iPhones so that they could do unauthorized things with the product that they had purchased with their hard earned money.

So, it should certainly be no surprise when Apple brings this beneficial feature to bear on iPhones running user installed, non-Apple approved, third party software on either locked or unlocked iPhones.  Apple believes it will benefit greatly from the feature, the owner, not so much.

The first generation iPhone was quickly unlocked from Apple’s control, and hackers have had no trouble keeping up with Apple’s attempts to lock it back down.  So, perhaps Apple is hoping to better contain unauthorized uses on the new phone by adding the latent software kill switch.

Apple previous attempts to control iPhone owner’s behavior even went as far as suggesting that unauthorized applications and unlocked iPhones might inadvertently be bricked by firmware incompatibility during updates and then suddenly iPhones started mysteriously getting bricked soon after, including ones that were not unlocked.

Oops.  That would seem to negate that whole inadvertent claim by Apple for unlocked phones.

Apple denied that the bricking was their doing and then denied warranty service to owners of unlocked, bricked phones.  As there are laws against these sorts of activities, Apple is currently being sued over the whole bricking bit in more than one lawsuit.  Potential legal violations by Apple include quite a number of these laws such as the Sherman Antitrust Act, the California Business and Professions Code, The Cartwright Act, The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, The Federal Trade Commission Act, The Communications Act of 1934, and The Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Apple likes to point to Intellectual Property rights, contracts, and license agreements to justify their actions.  Apple has an exclusive agreement with AT&T to provide iPhones in the US and AT&T customers are required to sign up for AT&T service to get the phone.  This ignores the fact that consumers have the legal right to unlock and port phones to other providers.

Here, I will make the important distinction between ownership of what is termed Intellectual Property (IP) and ownership of a product that is based on that IP.

Under the Doctrine of First Sale, which applies to both patents and copyright, when a company sells a product they relinquish control of the particular item to the purchaser.  In other words, the purchaser owns the product and can do with it anything they like, including modifying and reselling the product.

The only limits in what a purchaser can do with a product depends on the status of any copyrights or patents protecting the ideas that went into creating the product.  If the term of any copyrights or patents is not exhausted, then the purchaser does not have the right to create copies or similar products for sale based on the original.  But after the legal term of protection has expired, they can do this as well.

Software companies like to play the intangible nature of software to confuse what is owned and what is not to circumvent the Doctrine of First Sale.  This is usually done through a shrink wrapped End Users License Agreement (EULA) that is nonnegotiable with any attempt to install the software terminated if do not accept is pressed after the terms.  The EULA typically says that the consumer does not even own the particular physical copy of the software that they have paid for, they are only granted license to use, more consistent with rental/lease arrangements.

Case law has been mixed, but periodically EULAs limiting consumer’s ownership rights get smacked down because the transactions to obtain software look an awful lot more like sales transactions rather than rental/lease transactions.  The legal reasoning is that software is typically provided to consumers using front loaded transactions, full payment upfront, whereas rentals/leases are based on amortized transactions, payment over time.  That and they like to say words like purchase and sale all over the place except in the fine print of the EULA.

People often find creative ways to use what they have bought that is beyond the manufacturer’s original intent and the iPhone is no exception.  Apple may not like it, but ultimately, companies like Apple will have to get it through their collective heads that people don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do with something they have paid money for, even if the company tries to call the sale a license.

To do otherwise does nothing more than piss off money paying customers who will eventually find a preferable alternative on which to spend their money.


About the author:
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Professionally, David engineers building structures. He is also a musician and audio enthusiast. David gives his perspective about loudspeakers and complex audio topics from his mechanical engineering and HAA Certified Level I training.

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