It was reported that Google has been using code that bypassed the privacy settings of people using the Safari browser on their iPhones. Google did this to track information of users who did not even know that Google was monitoring them, since they were using Safari on their iPhones. When the report came out, Google immediately disabled it. Wonder how Google disabled the software so quickly.
Ever heard of a kill switch? Kill switches are technologically unsophisticated administrative programs that run silently in the background. They have long existed in controlled networks, such as at work, where technical staff has power over every machine. They haven’t been widely used on personal computers, whose users are only online sporadically and inconsistently. But since smart-phone users are online all the time and must download applications from tightly controlled stores, they are the perfect target for kill switches.
So, what’s the big deal about the kill switch? While their stated use is for the removal of harmful content, there’s no standard definition of what that means, and companies aren’t required to disclose when and how the tools are employed. The technology could be harnessed by a hacker to unleash a virus, a company to pry into a user’s private information or a government body to repress free speech. The possibilities are without limits. Representatives of Google and Microsoft said they have used kill switches a handful of times, though they declined to provide specifics other than saying that the kill switch is reserved for “really egregious, really obvious cases” of harmful content.
One instance came after a 28-year-old security researcher from Ann Arbor, Mich., duped fans of the Twilight teen vampire movies. A fake app on the Android Market was billed as a preview of the latest film in the series. The software was empty, except for a single screen shot. But the app was downloaded 200 times. This provided an opportunity that might have let its creator introduce malware onto the devices of the 200 users who had downloaded it. So, while a kill switch can be used for a good purpose, the fear is that it could also be used for a destructive one.