Why the fight between Apple and Google over Android is about more than just software flaws

WASHINGTON — The bitter, two-year-old fight between Apple and Google over smartphone software has escalated to the point where the companies’ workarounds are being used to try to find and block unauthorized use of their software.

The source of the dispute has been discovery — or discovering in the course of a lawsuit or government probe the source code needed to fix the software. For example, in 2016, the Federal Trade Commission accused Apple of violating antitrust law when it used the iPhone’s QuickTime media player to block the distribution of software for competing operating systems from companies such as BlackBerry and Microsoft.

FTC attorneys subpoenaed Apple’s QuickTime documentation to try to find out how Apple determined which rival software worked in its iPhones. Apple objected, arguing that the FTC didn’t have the authority to demand the documents, called source code.

Apple filed a motion this week in California state court seeking to get rid of the subpoena, but an FTC attorney replied, according to Bloomberg, that the request to toss the subpoena had been made in error. The FTC refiled the subpoena.

And Google, which is involved in two federal lawsuits related to the same issue, said this week that Google Assistant’s software uses user names and passwords to keep its database secured from outsiders. It shares the passwords with the user so the Google Assistant can keep sharing information to make the most accurate recommendations. But Google offers a similar service on its competing operating system, Android.

So, in other words, Google is incorporating Apple’s actions into the operating system that runs smartphones running Google’s Android software — in a possible response to the FBI seeking to weaken the software to get around encryption so it could access terrorists’ communications.

Because the competitors’ software is tightly integrated into the Google and Apple operating systems, many technology professionals believe it’s impossible to identify the origin of the flaws in software bugs.

But a document uncovered by Gizmodo this week suggests the two companies are so far behind in software updates that they may be left with only until Nov. 21 to come up with fixes before additional court filings compel them to upgrade software. According to the document, Apple sent a draft of the bypass that could be used to break encrypted communications to Apple employees on June 23, 2018. The FBI has pushed Apple to send a draft of the bypass on demand to the FBI, saying it’s in the public interest to get the software that Apple can develop that will help the FBI break encryption.

“This should set off a firestorm,” said Josh Levy, a manager at the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, said about the document. “This is not just a privacy issue or even an encryption issue. It’s putting people’s trust in somebody who can’t hold up its end of the deal.”

Apple declined to comment and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

But numerous high-profile companies are calling on all Silicon Valley firms to work more closely to resolve these issues, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, the FBI and Apple, several technology lawyers told The Washington Post.

Tech companies — long alienated from the FBI and other federal agencies because of its hands-off approach to tech security — have so far been unwilling to come together to address some of the thorny questions surrounding the technology industry’s evolution, said one source, who was not authorized to speak for attribution and so asked not to be identified.

“This has gone beyond software security issues, because a significant amount of federal law enforcement has become conditioned to relying on vulnerabilities … and security experts have become conditioned to accept the government’s role,” said the source. “All of the companies, really, have bent over backwards to make it really difficult for the government to get around security and encryption.”

But patent attorney Arthur Terzian warned that the controversy could make it more difficult for others in Silicon Valley to work with the government.

“It’s a branding issue, there’s no question,” said Terzian, who works at Above Avalon, a general counsel and IP firm. “It would be infinitely better if Apple and Google spent more money on battling each other, rather than in front of the DOJ and the FTC.”

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