What if Apple was forced to allow app sales outside of the iOS store?

Would iPhone users fall into a security nightmare?

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Daniel Cooper
August 13th, 2020
In this article: Apple, iOS, App Store, Security, Privacy, news, gear
BRAZIL - 2020/07/11: In this photo illustration a padlock appears next to the iOS (Apple) logo. Online data protection/breach concept. Internet privacy issues. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SOPA Images via Getty Images

The knives are out for Apple. Companies on both sides of the Atlantic are pushing for regulators to do something about its dominance. They say that Apple’s control of the App Store — the only way to get native apps onto an iOS device — is anticompetitive. It’s these arguments which are pushing officials to take a look at Apple’s policies, and how they’re enforced, just in case there’re some antitrust shenanigans going on. 

One potential solution is for officials to simply insist that Apple allow third parties to bypass the App Store and let them install apps directly to iOS devices. It’s certainly an extreme solution, and one that Apple would fight tooth-and-nail to prevent from happening, but it’s not impossible. After all, in November 2019, Germany passed a bill that included a rule forcing Apple to open up the iPhone’s NFC platform to allow third-party payment providers outside of Apple Pay. The key concern is, however, what that would do for the privacy and security of iPhone and iPad users, which Apple has repeatedly said is a “fundamental human right.”

The obvious worry is that losing Apple as gatekeeper would erode the protections that iOS is famous for. People buy iPhones because Apple promises to keep your data private, a promise that Google cannot match given the nature of its business and its operating system. Would breaking the App Store render iOS as insecure and prone to malware as Android?

Not according to Yair Ivnitsky, a mobile developer at cybersecurity company GK8. He said that App Store review, where the company vets apps before they’re added to the store, is only one of a number of ways that Apple secures the iPhone. And that, broadly speaking, in the highly unlikely event that the iOS was opened up, users wouldn’t be at too great a risk. 

Ivnitsky explained how iOS is secure by design, starting with the secure enclave on iPhones and iPads. The enclave contains a hardware-based key manager which is isolated from the rest of the system. 

There are then several layers of system security on top of that, including a secure boot process that prevents malicious code being injected into the OS when it starts up. Each app’s data is encrypted in AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), locking the data with a key that’s only available from within the secure enclave.

When apps run, they do so inside a sandbox, giving them “limited access to the phone’s resources,” said Ivnitsky. Part of this process is the fact that it constantly requires apps to ask for permission before it can access specific hardware and software features. And, as we’ve seen with iOS 14, these permissions can reveal how apps are monitoring its users. That may be enough, again, to reassure users. 

iOS then includes more proactive threat management, like a built-in firewall and antivirus that can, for instance, stop you from visiting a malicious URL. But the final layer, on top of all of this, is App Store review, since iOS will only run apps with code that Apple has signed off on. Apple admits that this process is “not a silver bullet,” but says that “the scope of potential damage is severely limited when an app is restricted to the minimum set of privileges it needs to get its job done.”

Essentially, Ivnitsky explained that the point of this isn’t to make your iOS device unhackable — that would be impossible — but to make it as difficult as possible to do so. “Many hackers don’t like iOS because it costs a lot of money, and time, to find a weakness,” he said. The example he used was corporate espionage, saying that it’d be worth the cash to gain access to a CEO’s phone. If that’s the level of effort needed to breach an iPhone, hopefully it’ll deter drive-by hackers trying to access your checking account details. 

Another security professional who echoed that sentiment was Jakub Kobeldys, lead developer at VAIOT, a company offering secure digital services for the legal industry. “It’s not that iOS is full of holes,” he said, but that “the App Store is a natural second layer that [Apple] can filter through and decide if something would be harmful.” He agreed it wasn’t foolproof, but that it can help screen out “undesirable” apps. 

Relaxing Apple’s system would largely benefit companies who want access to Apple’s customers but can’t or won’t play by Apple’s rules. Spotify could sell you Premium without the current contortions it has to make to avoid paying Apple a 30 percent cut. Plus, you’d be able to access game streaming services that Apple currently disallows, like Stadia, xCloud and Facebook Gaming. Microsoft and Facebook have publicly grumbled about Apple’s need for individual review, forcing them to axe, or severely curtail, gaming services on iOS.

One of the reasons that people buy iPhones is the built-in security. Opening up the App Store may not wreck iOS, but it’d certainly force users to be more cautious about downloading apps that may not be as secure. And it’ll be up to each person, and the regulators, to decide if that’s a price worth paying.

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