Foreign Policy Blogs

Auntie Steve vs. the Malbots

Android smartphone owners had a bad week with several pieces of malware emerging in the Android App Store – necessitating the frightening step of remote-nuking the evil apps.

I have yet to hear of a significant iPhone Trojan horse or virus. It’s not that the platform is bulletproof- the jailbreakers would be out of business if so- but it’s hard to surreptitiously introduce malware on an iPhone.

The main place people go to download iPhone software isn’t the web (you can’t) but rather the Apple App Store. Everything on there is censored – or as they prefer to say, curated – by Apple employees. Their guidelines for accepting or rejecting things can be opaque or transparently self-interested, but the fact is that everything put there has been vetted by someone.

Computer geeks, often of a libertarian bent, hate this. Jonathan Zittrain, a scholar at Harvard’s Berkman Center, thinks a lot about these issues and is really concerned by it, too. These corporate-controlled walled gardens can smack of your worst dystopic Orwellian nightmares of cyber control, which is probably one of the reasons that the far more open Android platform is more popular among hard-core techies.

However unsettling, this Apple control cones with real advantages- the lack of viruses currently scaring the Android world. It’s a tradeoff many people would be happy to make.

This is the kind of argument governments use for tighter controls on the Internet, or attempts to remove the concept of Internet anonymity. Similarly, a lot of people would jump at the chance to keep themselves safe from cybercriminals. The difference is, of course, if the whole Internet was refounded on this principle no one could opt out. Imagine how that would be playing out in the Middle East today.

In these sorts of situations I’m reminded of Franklin’s quote*: “That would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

*Yes yes, it might be apocryphal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true