Routing Around Apple’s Restrictions, AppCertain & Others Bring Enterprise-Level Control To Consumers In The Interest Of Child Safety

Posted: May 14, 2013 in Apple, Apps, GT, Mobile, Startup, Technology

In the interest of protecting children, a new iOS
application called AppCertain has debuted a
monitoring application aimed at parents. The app,
whose goal is to alert parents about the nature of the
applications their kids are downloading, involves the
use of a “configuration profile” – special software Apple originally intended for enterprise use, not
consumer-facing apps sold through its App Store
marketplace. But Apple reviewed the application – for longer than
most, founder and CEO Spencer Whitman tells us –
and subsequently approved it. For how long that will
remain the case, however, is unknown. “We think we are on a gray line with respect to Apple,
but we don’t really know,” Whitman admits. Configuration profiles, for those unfamiliar, were
designed for the enterprise environment, allowing I.T.
departments to manage the iPhones and iPads used
by a company’s employees. They’re typically
employed by Mobile Device Management solutions
which use the software to configure, track and/or restrict a number of system-level settings like Wi-Fi,
VPNs, app settings, permissions, and more. But more recently, a handful of startups have started
using these same profiles to work around Apple’s App
Store’s restrictions in order to accomplish tasks
which wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Apple is aware
this is happening, and seems to be handling each app
submission on a one-off basis for now. We’ve seen mobile data compression utilities like
Onavo and Snappli take advantage of the technology
to intercept, re-route, and compress web data in order
to save users’ bandwidth, for instance. Social search
engine Wajam also uses a configuration profile to
inject its own search results into Safari, though this is done outside of the Apple App Store. Onavo is still live on the Apple App Store today,
though Snappli has since disappeared. (We reached
out to the company for details, but have yet to hear
back. It’s possible that Apple simply didn’t care for
the fact that Snappli had publicly shared data showing
how iOS users were dumping the then newly-launched Apple Maps application.) But frankly, it seems odd that Apple would knowingly
ever let these types of applications into its consumer-
facing app store in the first place, given the security
risks they could pose. If used unscrupulously, a
malicious configuration profile could remote control a
user’s device, manipulate user activity, and hijack their sessions, or so explained security researchers
at Skycure back in March. AppCertain isn’t a malicious developer, though, and
its intentions are not to control or restrict how an
Apple device is used, which would then be stepping
on top of Apple’s own, built-in Parental Control
features. Instead, it only monitors app downloads and
reports back to parents via email that an app was downloaded, explaining what the app does, as well as
what sorts of permissions it requests, and more. The idea is to alert parents about the apps their child
uses, including whether or not they have educational
value. It doesn’t prevent the child from actually
downloading or installing apps. The service, staffed by a number of Carnegie Mellon
University alumni, first launched to the web in
February after being incubated by seed and studio
fund Birchmere Labs. Whitman explained at the time that the company
wanted to help busy parents, who often have a hard
time keeping up with what their children are installing
and using. It’s not only a problem that affects tech
novices, he had said. Even savvy parents often
forget or get too busy to keep a close eye on their children’s devices. And these devices, little mini-
computers that they are, are not without risks. Parental Controls Outside Of Apple’s Control While AppCertain is trying to go the official, Apple-
approved route with its creation, another company, a
small German app consultancy called Mocava, is not.
Its new Parental Control application is an over-the-air
install only, knowing that Apple would never approve
it for App Store download. Mocava owner Vinh Phuc Dinh says that he created
the app to address a situation he found himself in all
the time. “I have many nephews, and would pass on
my device for them to play,” he tells us.
“Unfortunately, there is no easy way to restrict
access on the iPhone and save the desired preferences. So we built it ourselves.” What he means is that though Apple offers parental
control features, it’s not the right solution for those
who only need controls on occasion. With
his Parental Control App, you can quickly turn on
restrictions without having to reconfigure them from
scratch them each time you hand your phone or iPad to a child. Even if Apple’s restrictions are turned off,
the tool will remember your settings. You can restrict certain default apps from being
accessed or certain content from being viewed. You
can disable in-app purchases, or specify that an App
Store password is always required, and more. To get
started, you configure your settings on the web, then
download the profile the company provides. The mere fact that this app and AppCertain even
exist speaks to one of the problems with Apple’s
strict control over its OS. Unlike on Android where
apps like KIDO’Z, Kytephone, Play Safe, Kid
Mode and others allow parents more granular control
and insight, Apple’s settings are cumbersome. If you turn on age restrictions, for example, the child can’t
watch Netflix. You can disable the web browser, but
not whitelist websites, and so on. These devices are computers, and while parents may
disagree on what level of involvement on their part is
necessary, it’s fair to say that as with “real”
computers, children – especially young children –
shouldn’t be given free rein with no parental oversight.
Too many parents think of iPads as toys, blindly typing in their password every time their kid begs for
a new app. They, perhaps, put too much trust in
Apple’s “family friendly” policies – just because apps
are rated and ranked, pornography or gore-free, that
doesn’t make everything appropriate for every child. It will be interesting to see how far Apple allows these
companies to push into this new territory, before it
decides to crack down or otherwise change its
policies. AppCertain is available for download here on iPhone
and iPad.

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