Over the past week a new app has been making some serious waves in the Android apps marketplace. “Virus Shield”, a new security app, claimed to prevent “harmful apps from being installed on your device,” and to scan apps in real time for malware in order to protect user information. Furthermore, and what must have seemed a blessing to owners of power-hungry smartphones, it claimed to use very little battery life, a key feature picked up on by numerous satisfied reviewers who also praised the lack of advertisements and the cool, incredibly user-friendly interface.
At the touch of a slickly designed button Virus Shield offered complete reassurance that your device was perfectly secure. All this for $3.99? Understandably thousands snapped it up and the app quickly rose to the top of the paid charts. Perhaps most incredibly of all, Virus Shield comprised only 219 lines of code and was a puny 859kb download. If Albert Einstein was correct in saying: “genius is taking the complex and making it simple,” then 17 year old developer Jesse Carter is surely the Da Vinci of the age.
That would be of course, if Virus Shield wasn’t a total sham. Yes, Google recently removed the wonder-app from their play store after it was revealed that the entire functionality of the program was a user-activated image toggle which caused the shield button to display a tick instead of a cross. However, the app’s design appears to have caused a Pavlovian frenzy as thousands (over 30000 to be exact) flocked to download it, conditioned surely by the trend in minimalist icons such as the bitten grey apple or Twitter’s blue bird, symbols which we have learned promise so much in their infinite simplicity. Almost painfully ironically the basis of many of the 5 star reviews, specifically the app’s very low power requirements and complete lack of advertisements, held up under scrutiny, with the exception that Virus Shield did not of course shield devices from viruses in any discernible way.
Unfortunately the placebo effect does not have cross platform capability and as yet is not compatible with the Android operating system and therefore Virus Shield, it can be stated, did absolutely nothing to protect these devices. Fortunately the scam was uncovered, and the app’s popularity was its own undoing when reviewers from the “Android Police” website got involved and unpacked its components. Moreover Google, as previously stated, has now removed the app and will be refunding customers.
The creator, Carter, claims that he won’t be receiving any profits since Google suspended his account, and the app was indeed pulled before the 15th of the month, the date when Google reportedly processes developer payments. Investigations into the developer reveal a shady past, suggesting that Carter’s account on Scythe.org, a website specialising in virtual goods (items in multiplayer games, Steam accounts, etc.) was deleted due to his attempts to scam other users. Moreover, a cursory glance into the publishing history of “Deviant Solutions,” the official creators of Virus Shield, should raise an eyebrow or two- would you trust your phone with the developers of “Yolo Bilbo Swaggins”?
The issue has raised some important questions about the security and reliability of the Android marketplace. Google reputedly has a far less draconian vetting system than its competitor Apple. Many prefer the Android system, and Apple’s reputation has suffered several minor blows as a consequence of their app-checking process. For example, many commented on their recent hypocrisy in refusing to publish programs such as Pulitzer-prize winning Mark Fiore’s satirical cartoon app on the grounds that it contained “objectionable” material whilst continuing to offer downloadable music containing homophobic, violent and often misogynistic lyrics. In comparison to Apple, Google appears to be a much less restricted marketplace, which obviously has its pros and cons. For every Mark Fiore out there, there could be a Jesse Carter.
This is not to say that Google doesn’t have a strict policy for app developers to follow. On their webstore developer FAQ the company claims: “All apps go through an automated review process and in most cases, an app will be published without further manual review.” However, whilst malware can be automatically scanned for, it is far harder to detect when an app may be misleading customers or providing a sub-standard service. Consequently users should still be wary when downloading apps from the Play store. Remember to check details such as the history of the developer, including previous apps published. Also rely only so far on reviews, and then check for longer, more in-depth assessments rather than glib, five-star statements. Furthermore be vigilant in reporting fraudulent or misleading products as, unless Google adopts its competitor’s publishing policies (not necessarily a positive), the community must help itself and look out for the interests of other, perhaps less tech-savvy users who may be dolloping out their hard earned cash for an empty shell of a program.
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