by Miguel de Icaza

Apple versus Epic Games: Why I’m Willing to Pay a Premium for Security, Privacy, and Peace of Mind

In the legal battle over the App Store’s policies, fees, and review processes, Epic Games wants to see a return to the good old days – where software developers retained full control over their systems and were only limited by their imaginations. Yet those days are long gone.

Granted, in the early 90s, I hailed the Internet as humanity’s purest innovation. After all, it had enabled a group of global developers to collaboratively build the Linux operating system from the ground up. In my X years of experience as a developer, nothing has come close to the good will, success, and optimistic mood of those days.

Upon reflection, everything started to change the day I received my first spam message. It stood out not only because it was the first piece of unsolicited email I received, but also because it was a particularly nasty piece of spam. The advertiser was selling thousands of email addresses for the purposes of marketing and sales. Without question, I knew that someone would buy that list, and that I would soon be on the receiving end of thousands of unwanted pieces of mail. Just a few months later, my inbox was filled with garbage. Since then, the Internet has become increasingly hostile – from firewalls, proxies, and sandboxes to high-profile exploits and attacks.

Hardly a new phenomenon, before the Internet, the disk operating system (DOS) platform was an open system where everyone was free to build and innovate. But soon folks with bad intentions destroyed what was a beautiful world of creation and problem solving, and turned it into a place riddled with viruses, trojans, and spyware.

Like most of you alive at the time, I found myself using anti-virus software. In fact, I even wrote a commercial product in Mexico that performed the dual task of scanning viruses and providing a Unix-like permission system for DOS (probably around 1990). Of course, it was possible to circumvent these systems, considering DOS code had full access to the system.

In 1993, Microsoft introduced a family of operating systems that came to be known as Windows NT. Though it was supposed to be secure from the ground up, they decided to leave a few things open due to compatibility concerns with the old world of Windows 95 and DOS. Not only were there bad faith actors in the space, developers had made significant mistakes. Perhaps not surprisingly, users began to routinely reinstall their operating systems following the gradual decays that arose from improper changes to their operating systems.

Fast-forward to 2006 when Windows Vista entered the scene – attempting to resolve a class of attacks and flaws. The solution took many users by surprise. It’s more apt to say that it was heavily criticized and regarded as a joke in some circles. For many, the old way of doing things had been working just fine and all the additional security got in the way. While users hated the fact that software no longer worked out of the box, it was an important step towards securing systems.

With the benefit of hindsight, I look back at the early days of DOS and the Internet as a utopia, where good intentions, innovation, and progress were the norm. Now swindlers, scammers, hackers, gangsters, and state actors routinely abuse open systems to the point that they have become a liability for every user.

In response, Apple introduced iOS – an operating system that was purpose-build to be secure. This avoided backwards compatibility problems and having to deal with users who saw unwanted changes to their environment. In a word, Apple managed to avoid the criticism and pushback that had derailed Windows Vista.

It’s worth pointing out that Apple wasn’t the first to introduce a locked-down system that didn’t degrade. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft consoles restricted the software that could be modified on their host operating systems and ran with limited capabilities. This resulted in fewer support calls, reduced frustration, and limited piracy.

One of Apple’s most touted virtues is that the company creates secure devices that respect user’s privacy. In fact, they have even gone to court against the US government over security. Yet iOS remains the most secure consumer operating system. This has been made possible through multiple layers of security that address different threats. (By referring to Apple’s detailed platform security, you can get a clear sense of just how comprehensive it is.)

Offering a window into the development process, security experts need to evaluate systems from end-to-end and explore how the system can be tampered with, attacked, or hacked, and then devise both defense mechanisms and plans for when things will inevitably go wrong.

Consider the iPhone. The hardware, operating system, and applications were designed with everything a security professional loves in mind. Even so, modern systems are too large and too complex to be bullet-proof. Researchers, practitioners, hobbyists, and businesses all look for security holes in these systems – some with the goal of further protecting the system, others for educational purposes, and still others for profit or to achieve nefarious goals.

Whereas hobbyists leverage these flaws to unlock their devices and get full control over their systems, dictatorships purchase exploits in the black market to use against their enemies and gain access to compromising data, or to track the whereabouts of their targets.

This is where the next layer of security comes in. When a flaw is identified – whether by researchers, automated systems, telemetry, or crashes – software developers design a fix for the problem and roll out the platform update. The benefits of keeping software updated extend beyond a few additional emoji characters; many software updates come with security fixes. Quite simply, updating your phone keeps you more secure. However, it’s worth emphasizing that this only works against known attacks.

The App Store review process helps in some ways; namely, it can:

  • Force applications to follow a set of guidelines aimed at protecting privacy, the integrity of the system, and meet the bar for unsuspecting users

  • Reduce applications with minimal functionality – yielding less junk for users to deal with and smaller attack surfaces

  • Require a baseline of quality, which discourages quick hacks

  • Prevent applications from using brittle, undocumented, or unsupported capabilities

Still, the App Store review process is not flawless. Some developers have worked around these restrictions by: (1) distributing hidden payloads, (2) temporarily disabling features while their app was being tested on Apple’s campus, (3) using time triggers, or (4) remotely controlling features to evade reviewers.

As a case in point, we need look no further than Epic Games. They deceptively submitted a “hot fix,” which is a practice used to fix a critical problem such as a crash. Under the covers, they added a new purchasing system that could be remotely activated at the time of their choosing. It will come as no surprise that they activated it after they cleared the App Store’s review process.

Unlike a personal computer, the applications you run on your smartphone are isolated from the operating system and even from each other to prevent interference. Since apps run under a “sandbox” that limits what they can do, you do not need to reinstall your iPhone from scratch every few months because things no longer work.

Like the systems we described above, the sandbox is not perfect. In theory, a bad actor could include an exploit for an unknown security hole in their application, slip it past Apple, and then, once it is used in the wild, wake up the dormant code that hijacks your system.

Anticipating this, Apple has an additional technical and legal mitigation system in place. The former allows Apple to remotely disable and deactivate ill-behaved applications, in cases where an active exploit is being used to harm users. The legal mitigation is a contract that is entered into between Apple and the software developer, which can be used to bring bad actors to court.

Securing a device is an ongoing arms race, where defenders and attackers are constantly trying to outdo the other side, and there is no single solution that can solve the problem. The battlegrounds have recently moved and are now being waged at the edges of the App Store’s guidelines.

In the same way that security measures have evolved, we need to tighten the App Store’s guidelines, including the behaviors that are being used for the purposes of monetization and to exploit children. (I plan to cover these issues in-depth in a future post.) For now, let me just say that, as a parent, there are few things that would make me happier than more stringent App Store rules governing what applications can do. In the end, I value my iOS devices because I know that I can trust them with my information because security is paramount to Apple.

Coming full-circle, Epic Games is pushing for the App Store to be a free-for-all environment, reminiscent of DOS. Unlike Apple, Epic does not have an established track record of caring about privacy and security (in fact, their privacy policy explicitly allows them to sell your data for marketing purposes). Not only does the company market its wares to kids, they recently had to backtrack on some of their most questionable scams – i.e., loot boxes – when the European Union regulated them. Ultimately, Epic has a fiduciary responsibility to their investors to grow their revenue, and their growth puts them on a war path with Apple.

In the battle over the security and privacy of my phone, I am happy to pay a premium knowing that my information is safe and sound, and that it is not going to be sold to the highest bidder.

Posted on 28 Aug 2020