"I am not a villain," says alleged Android Trojan creator

Developer Max Lifshin says that whistle blowers have unfairly classified his Android application Tap Snake as a Trojan and deprived him of income by getting it banned from the Android Market.
Written by Ed Burnette, Contributor on

Max Lifshin, an Android developer living in Russia the US, says his Tap Snake program is not a Trojan or virus, despite a warning from security software maker Symantec last week. Lifshin has been vilified in the press for releasing the program, which was intended for parents to track their children's whereabouts. Reached by ZDNet for comment, Lifshin insisted that his motivations were innocent:

The app is no more malicious than a motion detection camera - everything depends on the user's intentions. It gives all the proper warnings and requires a set up, a conscious action, to report location. It can be easily used by mothers worrying about their kids' whereabouts. In fact, I suspect the majority of users were indeed the mothers.

For the program to work, the parent or guardian downloads and installs the innocuous looking game on their kid's phone. During the installation process, Android asks for permission to access location information and to send and receive information to the Internet. After accepting these terms, the parent must open up a menu option and activate the tracking service with a unique key. Then they give the phone back to their child. From that point on, the game will occasionally upload its location to a server, where only somebody with the key can view it. Lifshin says:

The app is not really very different from Google's Latitude. As any technology product, it can be put to either noble or malicious ends.

The game can be uninstalled at any time. The program run by the parent to view location information is called GPS Spy. The Market description for GPS Spy openly explained how all this works, saying:

Download and install the free Tap Snake game from the Market to the phone you want to spy on. Press MENU and register the Snake with the service. Use the GPS Spy app on your phone with the same email/code to track the location of the other phone.

However, the description of the Tap Snake game did not say anything about tracking, presumably so your child could look up the game for updates or reviews and be none the wiser. Until recently, Tap Snake was a free download and GPS Spy was $4.99. After the news came out, Google removed both apps from the Market. According to Lifshin,

What's sad is that these "whistle blowers" have prompted Google to suspend the app and thus deprived me of income. They unfairly classified this app as a Trojan and portrayed me as a villain, a malicious Russian developer working in the shadows.

What do you think: is this a dangerous Trojan or a useful safety device for parents? Was Google right to ban it? Speak up in the Talkback section below.

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