Apple's iPhone app fraud: Where were the app police?

How is it that fraud-associated apps sailed into Apple's iPhone App Store while legit programs are banned left and right?

Alert! Alert! Apple's walled garden has been breached!

Have you seen the headlines? Someone apparently managed to manipulate Apple's iPhone App Store over the holiday weekend. As first reported by tech blog The Next Web, a sly lil' developer filled up the App Store with dozens of his questionable creations. By the time the jig was up, the guy had pushed his bogus-looking wares into 42 of the 50 top seller spots for Apple's e-books category.

And that's just the start.

Apple App Fraud: A Larger Problem

Some believe our suspect -- a fellow by the name of Thuat Nguyen -- hacked into users' iTunes accounts and made fraudulent purchases in order to raise his rankings. Apple, for its part, says only that Nguyen and his apps were "removed from the App Store for violating the developer Program License Agreement, including fraudulent purchase patterns."

We can get a slightly more vivid picture from other developers, one of whom describes Nguyen's apps as "roughly coded, non-localized Vietnamese comic book" adaptations. The apps were said to be priced expensively, with no ratings, no reviews, and no other signs of legitimate purchaser activity.

But wait: There's more! According to the crew at The Next Web, Nguyen isn't alone. The blog uncovered numerous other shady-seeming examples] within Apple's App Store. Some of them appear to be thinly disguised ploys to steal users' credit card numbers; others have a purpose that's not immediately as clear. But most have several traits in common: a lack of any real function, a lack of a valid developer's Web site, and a lack of an icon other than a generic image ripped from the Web.

You needn't worry, though, iPhone users: Apple is keeping you safe from dangerous apps like Google Voice, Google Latitude, and cartoonist Daryl Cagle's Tiger Woods cartoon viewer. Anything that so much as implies the idea of a nipple certainly won't get within 10 feet of Steve Jobs' castle. And political satire? Well, you're usually shielded from that, unless some guy has the audacity to win a Pulitzer Prize and generate lots of publicity over his rejection.

So here's my question: How is it that Apple manages to ban perfectly legit, high-quality apps left and right -- yet allows garbage like Thuat Nguyen's massive collection into its shelves? What the hell is going on at that place? Are Apple's app police no better than America's TSA guards, strip-searching 90-year-old grandmas while letting guys with guns waltz right by?

(Steve Jobs, in case you were wondering, has yet to weigh in on the issue via one of his famously terse e-mails. I even checked in with the world-renowned Steve Jobs E-Mail Generator to see if it could offer any insights, but alas, no such luck.)

App Store Perspectives

Typically, when I talk about my qualms with Apple's culture of control -- particularly when it comes to app-oriented restrictions -- people tell me it's a worthwhile tradeoff to know they have only high-quality, safe, family-friendly programs at their fingertips. Android, I've frequently been told, is a wild jungle: Anyone can upload anything, and what's to keep you from encountering something dangerous or -- gasp! -- pornographic?

The truth, as Apple's App Store issue illustrates, is that there's dangerous and seedy material everywhere you go. Blindly putting your faith in some arbitrary-acting App Store border patrol isn't going to keep you safe. Using common sense is.

Think of it like the Internet: There are viruses, there are threats, and yes, there is porn. The answer isn't locking down the Web and trying to keep all the "bad stuff" away. The answer is being smart about what you do: Look carefully at something before you download it. See what other people are saying about it. If the product looks questionable, move along.

That's what we do in the world of Android, that's what we do in the world of the Web, and that's what we do in the real world, too. It's quite an effective system, when it comes down to it.

But hey, Apple's approach is what it is, and if you buy into that platform, that's what you get. Just remember that while that model may protect you from evil apps like Google Voice, it doesn't necessarily shield you from the apps that are actually out to do you harm.

Unless, of course, your biggest fear is a partially exposed nipple.

Contributing Editor JR Raphael writes the new Android Power blog at Computerworld. You can find him on Facebook or at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway.

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JR Raphael

PC World (US online)
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