Google And Apple Can Reach Into Mobile Devices, Even If You’re Using Them For POS

Written by Frank Hayes
March 9th, 2011

How will mobile devices ever get PCI approval if retailers can’t lock them down? For that matter, how should IT feel about a vendor that reserves the right to reach into the mobile devices and make unannounced changes? What if the device is in the middle of a critical project at that moment? What if the act of removal causes some unexpected system crash? Those are some key questions in the wake of Google’s announcement on Saturday (March 5) that the search giant is remotely removing a group of malicious apps from Android-based smartphones and tablets—and without any prior warning to users.

Google has reached into users’ mobile devices at least once before to delete apps in the name of security. Most users may not mind—certainly not as much as, say, Amazon reaching into their Kindles to delete mistakenly published e-books. But for retailers that want to use an Android device as a point-of-sale unit, the ability of a vendor—or any outsider—to modify the device by long distance could make getting a QSA’s approval impossible.

In the case of Google’s most recent reach-in, the problem was a group of between 20 and 50 rootkit-infected apps from the Android Market (accounts differ on exactly how many infected apps were involved). Google said it learned about the bad apps on March 1 and immediately stopped distributing them, then began removing them from the phones and tablets of the 260,000 users who had downloaded them.

Apple has confirmed it has the same ability to reach into iPhones and iPads, though the company has never admitted doing so.

That may be fine for ordinary users. They’re adding apps at will, and neither Apple, Google, RIM nor any other smartphone vendor can thoroughly vet every app that’s offered for its phones. Given that so much sensitive information is likely to flow through a smartphone, the ability to let a vendor kill malware by remote control at least sounds appealing—if you trust Apple and Google, anyway. Apple’s recently patented ability to completely shut down an i-device has the same who-do-you-trust problem.

And not all users are happy to place that much trust in their phone maker. There were plenty of complaints among bloggers and online commenters when word broke about Google’s use of its kill switch. Then again, there were similar complaints when Apple acknowledged its own iPhone app kill switch in 2008. That doesn’t seem to have driven away users.

But retailers are in a different situation than users. There shouldn’t be any malware downloaded to a mobile device being used for POS—or any other apps, for that matter. These handhelds should be locked down hard. No one should be able to add, remove or change software except IT. Certainly not users, and not Google or Apple either.

Unfortunately, both those vendors’ licenses reserve the right to reach in.


2 Comments | Read Google And Apple Can Reach Into Mobile Devices, Even If You’re Using Them For POS

  1. Anton Chuvakin Says:

    This, IMHO, is a very big deal potentially. The trade-off is indeed ugly and there a chance that using a general purpose mobile device for payments will always be a risky bet, both PCI-wise and common security sense-wise

  2. GreatBigDog Says:

    You do realize that Google’s reach only extends to apps that are installed via Google’s own Android Market? If you’ve used another market, installed an app downloaded from the net, or created your own, Google would have no way of knowing that you have it installed on your device.


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