...Archive for September 2007

Bricking someone else’s iPhone is a crime

Suppose, accurately, that I am a small software developer. Suppose I write a shareware application that includes a click-through license that states, ordinarily enough, that if you wish to use my application for longer than a 15-day trial, you must pay me. Suppose, ordinarily enough, my application periodically checks for updates, notifying users and offering to install the updates when they become available.

Now suppose that in the click-through installation process, I include a message, in bold text even, that says “Warning: If you’ve been using this application for longer than the 15-day trial period and have not entered a license key, installing this update may cause your hard drive to be erased!” And, suppose the update does just that.

I would be in jail. Not in a month, or a week, but yesterday. What I’d done would be considered equivalent to distributing a malicious virus. The click-through “authorization” wouldn’t be worth the electrons they were written on. In the computer crime world, “social engineering” — getting people to let one into a system to do bad things, rather than breaking in by technical means — is the norm, and it is illegal. When an e-mail virus begs you to run a malicious attachment, it is not the virus that kills your computer, but you, by double-clicking. After all, you ought to have known better, right? We still put the pimply teenager or smoky mafia don who sent the thing in jail, if we can find him. If there were a click-through warning, just prior to the swiss-cheesing of your computer, disclaiming liability and saying the program “may be harmful”? We’d still put the perp in jail.

Now if Apple has done what they appear to have done — if they have broken other people’s palmtop computers permanently as payback for having violated the terms of a license agreement — they have committed a crime. Sure, Apple made those iPhones, and they forced people to sign up to certain terms before selling them. But once they were sold, they were other peoples’ property. And whatever remedies Apple may have had against customers who violated the non-negotiable contracts they signed onto when purchasing the phone, those remedies did not include destruction of customer property without any adjudication by an impartial arbitrator. A click-through warning of the type every computer user, um, clicks through hundreds of time a year does not affect the criminality of Apple’s action.

If it was, in fact, a technical necessity that resolving customer issues on the iPhone required doing things that would break unlocked or modified iPhones, that would be a different situation. Apple would not be off the hook, but it would have some toothpicks to stand on. But I think that’s unlikely. At the very least, Apple’s update could have checked for incompatible changes to the iPhone and refreshed to initial state prior to applying the update. Apple didn’t brick people’s iPhones because it couldn’t help it. It bricked people’s iPhones because Apple is playing a “cat and mouse” game with customers who “think different”, who like to play with the gadgets they buy. (Bricolage is an especially apt term here.) Apple decided to play hard, and dropped the digital equivalent of a horse’s head on the beds of first-adopters who dared cross them, in order to deter future customers from using their device in a manner other than that prescribed for them.

This is criminal behavior, regardless of any violation of license terms by the victims of the crime. It’s illegal for Muscles to come by and cut your thumb off, even if you really do owe Da Boss some money. It’s illegal for Apple to gain entrance to your property under the pretense of improving it and then purposefully wreck the place because it found you were doing something you said you wouldn’t do there. A boldface sentence in a click-through agreement doesn’t change that.

I should say, this is not a personal gripe. I don’t own an iPhone, or an iBrick. (I did just buy an iPhone for my sister, but she’s unlikely to do anything with it that Uncle Steve would disapprove of.) I have been a rabidly enthusiastic consumer of Apple products since my parents bought the family an Apple ][+ in 1980. Just within my immediate family, there are at least 9 Mac laptops, largely as a result of my love of the platform and enthiusiasm for Apple’s products. Jobs and Woz have been heroes of mine since I was a kid. I know Steve Jobs is a tyrant. I even support that, when it comes to product development, running his company. Jobs can fire whoever he wants for not conforming to his remarkable vision of how Apple products ought to be. But he cannot purposefully destroy my stuff for the same offense.

I hope Apple is not simply sued, but prosecuted under criminal statutes for what they’ve done. Anything less means that big corporations live under different laws than pimply teenagers and small software developers.

It is getting so hard to find the good guys these days.

Update History:
  • 01-Oct-2007, 1:50 a.m. EDT: Dropped the word “electronic”, which was redundant with “digital” in the context of a horse’s head. Respelled “heros”. Changed “impartial third party” to “impartial arbitrator”. Redundancy is redundant.
  • 01-Oct-2007, 4:00 a.m. EDT: Replaced a vague “their” with “Apple’s”. Replaced one repeated use of the word “warning” with “message”. Removed some wordiness (“of the violation”).