The Top 10 Most Controversial Android Apps
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 22 November 2014.
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 22 November 2014.
In stark contrast to Apple’s restrictions on content offered in its App Store, the Android platform has always been a symbol of openness. If you want to squeeze the functionality out of your iPhone, be prepared to go through a complicated jail-breaking process to open it up to third-party apps. Androids need no such shenanigans - you can download apps from anywhere, not just the official store.
That significantly more laissez-faire attitude regarding what Google lets people download to their phones is a big part of why techies prefer Android devices. Being able to unleash the full power of your mobile is exhilarating. But with great power comes great responsibility, as Stan Lee once wrote, and there have been plenty of apps that abused that.
Even the most open platform still has limits, and Android app developers have run up against them a time or two. Google is typically very responsive to customer complaints, so malicious apps don’t linger for too long. However, nasty software can still be distributed through the Web and other vectors, so even if something’s gone from the Play Store it can still wind up on a host of phones.
Below, we spotlight 10 Android apps that kicked up a storm of controversy. Whether they posed serious security risks to users, illustrated flaws in Google’s system architecture, or just pushed the boundaries of good taste past the breaking point, these apps courted controversy and found it.
(Apple iOS fans, meanwhile, can check out the Top 10 Most Controversial iPhone Apps.)
1. Secret SMS Replicator
Android’s access to many of the phone’s native features opens the door for lots of quasi-legal shenanigans. One of the most devious apps we’ve seen is Secret SMS Replicator, a little bit of spyware that you install on the phone of a friend or loved one. Once it’s on, you set it up to forward all incoming text messages to the device of your choosing, giving suspicious minds an easy way to spy on their loved ones. It got the boot from the then-Android Market in 2010.
2. Is My Son Gay?
Here’s a great example of an app that tried to court controversy and got burned because of it. Is My Son Gay? was positioned as a tool for confused parents to figure out the sexual orientation of their children by answering a set of 20 questions about his personality and habits. Of course, there’s no way to tell if somebody’s gay or not from a survey. The app, which was released in 2011 to promote a humorous novel that was about to be released, got buried under an avalanche of complaints from LGBT advocacy groups, and was pulled in 2011.
3. App Inventor
At its heart, MIT’s App Inventor program is a beautiful piece of software. It democratizes the process necessary to get software on the Play Store, making it possible for people with even entry-level programming knowledge to make their idea a reality. Unfortunately, it also made it possible for malware developers to quickly create malicious apps titled after products like Dropbox that, when downloaded, opened your phone up to outsiders looking to siphon off your personal information.
It’s tougher and tougher to get away with prank phone calls in an era of instant caller ID and *69 line tracing. The creators of SpoofApp thought that was a shame, so they released their product to the Play Store in July of 2011. The software routed calls through a server that displayed a fictitious caller ID number to the receiving phone. Unfortunately, the Truth In Caller ID Act specifically outlaws doing this, causing Google to pull the app shortly after it launched.
5. Bomb Gaza
One of the easiest paths to app success is to cash in on a hot issue, but the war in Palestine was a little too hot for Google to handle. On July 26, 2014, Bomb Gaza was released to the Play Store by developers PLAYFTW. The game, which sported chunky retro pixel graphics, put players in the shoes of an Israeli air force pilot tasked with raining explosives down on the Gaza Strip to kill militants while avoiding civilian casualties. It was in incredibly poor taste but remarkably stayed up for over a week before being removed.
Here’s an app that can’t be used for anything but bad deeds. FaceNiff requires a rooted Android phone to work, but when it’s fired up it connects to a Wi-Fi access point and then scans all devices connected to it for logged in Facebook, Twitter, and even Amazon.com accounts. Once it finds them, it allows the phone user to hijack them, giving access to all of their personal data. Naturally, this isn’t something that’s ethical or even legal.
The vast majority of free apps on the Android platform are supported by advertising, giving the creator a penny or two when a banner is clicked. This is a perfectly acceptable model, but some people don’t like any commercials on their screen. Enter Ad-Away is an app that edited the hosts file of your Android phone to block a large list of banner ad providers. Although the software worked as promised, Google’s terms of service prohibit apps from interfering with other third-party apps, so it wasn’t long before it brought the hammer down - on Ad-Away and other ad-blocking apps.
8. Gun Geo Marker
In 2013, developer Brett Stalbaum made headlines when he released Gun Geo Marker for Android phones. The app was a piece of geotagging software that allowed users to rat out irresponsible gun owners. Locations could be tagged with a variety of markers, including “guns and unsupervised children” and “possible terror threat,” markers that were viewable by the public. The NRA and other gun rights advocates naturally reacted negatively, deluging the app with one-star reviews on the Play Store.
9. Make Me Asian
Racism is a tricky thing to make funny, even for the best comedians in the world. The developers of the Make Me Asian app aren’t on that level. The app, which debuted on the Play Store in January of 2013, let users import photographs and then add stereotypical “Asian” decorations to them like straw “coolie” hats and long Fu Manchu moustaches. It also tinted skin tones yellow and made eyes narrow and slanted, just to really amp up the offensiveness. After many complaints, Google pulled it from the store the same month.
10. The Virus Shield
Most of these controversial apps don’t make too much of a dent on the sales charts at the Play Store and are quickly forgotten. But one, The Virus Shield, actually managed to make its way all the way to the No. 1 download spot. For just US$3.99, the app claimed to scan the files on your phone to clear away any malware or compromised programs. What it really did was much simpler - when you tapped the screen, the icon changed from an X to a checkmark. No scanning was ever happening, and when the scam was revealed, Google immediately removed it from sale.
[Source: PC Magazine. Edited.]