Phone apps let users mock the law, but authorities aren't laughing

By Shan Li

Los Angeles Times

Published: Friday, July 15 2011 8:33 p.m. MDT

LOS ANGELES — Want to fool merchants with a fake ID? Hack someone's text messages? Or how about tracking where your co-workers are, without their knowing it?

There's an app for that.

The explosion in smartphone and tablet applications that allow people to check the weather, follow their stocks and play "Words With Friends" has a dark side — apps that facilitate questionable if not outright illegal behavior.

Apple's App Store, for example, offers "Drivers License" software that promises "unlimited access to realistic-looking licenses" for all 50 states. Though the phony licenses are advertised as entertainment, it's not hard to imagine a minor using one to try to get into a bar or a crook trying to pass a bad check.

Some members of Congress have pressured companies to remove certain apps, with mixed results. Banning apps isn't a viable option, according to legal experts, who say apps enjoy the same kinds of First Amendment protections as books, movies and music.

That means, in effect, that there are no restrictions on apps beyond the self-policing that companies like Apple and Google do to keep dubious products off their sites.

"The sky's the limit for developers, and that includes apps that may help people break the law," said Julie Samuels, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, which advocates for consumer and privacy rights. "There's unfortunately the potential for criminality with new technology."

In response to questioning at a recent congressional hearing, Apple Vice President Bud Tribble declared that the Cupertino, Calif., company would never "allow apps that encourage illegal behavior."

But when contacted by the Los Angeles Times, Tribble and other Apple executives declined to discuss the Drivers License app, or the iBlunt app that also can be downloaded on Apple's site. It allows iPhone users to display an image of a marijuana cigarette — and when they blow into the device's sensor, the "joint" emits smoke.

Even if Apple or Google ban certain apps, they are readily available on underground or alternative sites. Among the products now available:

The Secret SMS Replicator app, available in several third-party online stores for Android apps, allows people to have text messages from someone else's phone forwarded to them automatically, and without their knowing it.

The company markets the app to parents who want to keep tabs on their young children. Adults can also use the software to ensure that a family member or friend receives a copy of their text messages — that's legal, as long as the person whose messages are shared gives permission.

But the software could also be surreptitiously installed on someone's phone — that of a boss, business rival or significant other — without that person's knowledge, as long as the installer can get access to the phone for a few minutes. ("Grab your boyfriend's phone while he is in the shower," app developer DLP Mobile recommends on its website.) Doing so without permission amounts to illegal wiretapping, according to experts.

The Stalqer (pronounced "stalker") app shows you where your friends or co-workers are at any given moment by culling location data from Facebook and plotting them on a map. For it to work, you must first be Facebook "friends" with your target. The developer is working on ways to harvest similar data from people's Twitter updates.

The Police Light app mimics a squealing police siren. News reports from around the country indicate that at least three people have used it or similar apps to trick drivers into pulling over. Like the others, this app by itself is not illegal — but someone using it on the highway could get in trouble for impersonating a police officer, which can be a felony.

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