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'Kill switch' in action

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Google has reached out over the airwaves and removed a pair of applications from users' Android phones, saying the two apps violated its terms of service.

Like Apple, Google has a "kill switch" that allows it to remotely remove mobile apps that have already been installed by end users. The tool is mentioned in the terms and conditions for Google's app store, the Android Market, as the press noticed when the store debuted.

In a Wednesday blog post, Google confirmed the existence of its "Remote Application Removal Feature" and said it had recently exercised this tool after discovering two apps that "intentionally misrepresented their purpose in order to encourage user download."

According to the company, users are notified when apps are removed.

"Every now and then, we remove applications from Android Market due to violations of our Android Market Developer Distribution Agreement or Content Policy," the post reads. "In cases where users may have installed a malicious application that poses a threat, we’ve also developed technologies and processes to remotely remove an installed application from devices."

In this case, Google removed two free applications built by a security researcher. According to the company, the apps were used for research purposes. "They were not designed to be used maliciously, and did not have permission to access private data — or system resources beyond permission.INTERNET. As the applications were practically useless, most users uninstalled the applications shortly after downloading them."

The researcher, Google says, voluntarily removed the apps from the Android Market, and Google subsequently lifted the apps from user phones. "We decided, per the Android Market Terms of Service, to exercise our remote application removal feature on the remaining installed copies to complete the cleanup."

Google insists that the tool will only be used for good. "The remote application removal feature is one of many security controls Android possesses to help protect users from malicious applications," the company said. "In case of an emergency, a dangerous application could be removed from active circulation in a rapid and scalable manner to prevent further exposure to users. While we hope to not have to use it, we know that we have the capability to take swift action on behalf of users’ safety when needed."

But the tool is unsettling nonetheless. A year ago, Amazon apologized for the Orwellian removal of Orwell from digital book readers tucked inside the pockets of American citizens. In this case, the books were removed because the publisher did not hold the copyrights, and Amazon did not clearly notify users.

Amazon later claimed that it would not do this again. But that's not a promise it can necessarily keep. Now that Amazon has shown it has the power to remove books, the courts can compel it to do so. ®

In the summer of 2008, an iPhone hacker told the world that Apple had added an app kill switch to the holy handset, and Steve Jobs later confirmed its existence. "Hopefully, we never have to pull that lever," Jobs said, "but we would be irresponsible not to have a lever like that to pull."

But unlike Google, to our knowledge Jobs has never pulled his "kill switch" lever. ®

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