iOS dictionary apps posting false piracy "confessions" onto users' Twitter accounts

Filed Under: Apple, Featured, iOS, Mobile, Operating Systems, Spam, Twitter

A $55 iOS dictionary application has rewarded those who plonked down the cash by hijacking its users' Twitter feeds to post cooked-up piracy confessions.

As of Wednesday morning, a steady river of Twitter confessions was running through Twitterland.

Twitter messages

All of the messages seemed to come from people who'd spontaneously woken up to the evils of piracy and had all foresworn the sin, all in identical language that suggested the following:

"How about we all stop using pirated iOS apps? I promise to stop. I really will. #softwarepirateconfession."

The company behind the hijacking is Enfour, a Japanese maker of various dictionary applications.

The piracy module was supposed to shame people who actually stole Enfour's apps, but it ran amok, springing upon a huge chunk of the company's paid user base.

Enfour posted an apology [PDF] saying that it discovered serious glitches on November 1 that "embarrassed both our users and our company".

Apology from Enfour

According to the apology, customers who opened the app and then let it go to sleep before closing had the "unpleasant surprise" of forced confessions.

On waking, the app displayed a dialog box showing "Run in Safe Mode". The app then disabled itself and performed an auto soft close.

A notification appeared locally on the device. If the user had authorized the app to access their Twitter account, the #softwarepiracyconfession tweet was sent out under their account.

The tweet apparently only went out if the user tapped a send confirmation button.

Enfour says that it removed the anti-piracy module as soon as it became aware of the problem and worked with Apple to get a patched version online for download, all before the close of business on that same day.

There was no hack, no unofficial APIs, no compromised users' personal information, no virus, nor any malware involved, Enfour says: rather, it was solely a case of misguided-intention-ware.

To explain why it would unleash the anti-piracy app at all, Enfour said that its apps are pirated at an "astonishing" rate, with a ratio of 100 ripped-off copies to every legitimately sold version.

Ouch. That smarts, Enfour said.

At the small, family-owned business, where every lost sale impacts their livelihood, they just wanted the thievery to stop, and they thought they had cooked up a clever way to do it:

"We can't thwart truly determined hacker & crackers, but we wanted to possibly shame those who were opportunistically stealing our software. Just like installing a shop-lifting alarm in a store, we thought we were being creative with a notification and a timed tweet for users of a cracked app."

In the Japanese version of the letter, Enfour apologised for the inconvenience, trouble and slighted honor of those who bought legitimate copies of its applications.

That hurt honor was pinched far and wide, given the list of dictionaries affected. Here are just a few, from Enfour's apology:

  • American Heritage® Medical Dictionary
  • Australian Oxford Dictionary
  • Collins Gem Chinese
  • Collins Gem English Dictionary & Thesaurus
  • Collins Gem French-English Dictionary
  • Collins Gem German-English Dictionary
  • Collins Gem Italian-English Dictionary
  • Collins Gem Malay-English Dictionary
  • Collins Gem Portuguese-English Dictionary
  • Collins Gem Spanish-English Dictionary
  • Collins Polish-English Dictionary
  • Collins Russian-English Dictionary

Of course, like other earnest tweets, such as Muslim rage, the Twitter hijacking has already been turned into a joke.

Some variations on the theme:

I am a pirate. Ahoy, mateys! Yarr! #softwarepirateconfession

How about we all stop using ALL iOS apps? I promise to stop. I really will. #softwarepirateconfession

I cracked a handful of games on C64 when I was a kid and I totally enjoyed it. #softwarepirateconfession

EnfourAccording to Enfour, users who haven't updated to the fixed version may still be affected.

However, Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin reports seeing enough complaints floating around that he wonders if the problem is completely gone. And as Brodkin notes, there are still a steady stream of "confessions" being published on Twitter.

In retrospect, Enfour said in its apology, the piracy module "was not the wisest choice." The bug was "a screwup," it said, and they accept full responsibility.

All well and good. Nobody, I would hope, wants to see small, family-run businesses go belly-up because of piracy.

But I agree with Ars Technica's Brodkin on this one: it's not just the screwed-up implementation that's at issue here. It's the concept itself that's suspect.

Shaming people into behaving responsibly might work if you live in the same village and have extra rotten potatoes to lob at their heads, but there are probably more effective ways to fight piracy on the internet.

This type of vigilante justice will just be laughed off in the Wild West of the Intertubes.

And as Brodkin said, the company at the very least should have tested the module more thoroughly before letting it run rampant, posting false confessions on poor, bewildered, undeserving seekers of word definitions.

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8 Responses to iOS dictionary apps posting false piracy "confessions" onto users' Twitter accounts

  1. Rick Bunker · 1055 days ago

    How could there even be iOS pirating? One can't install software at all, other than from the app store.

  2. Chris · 1055 days ago

    Maybe if they charged $5, like most apps, instead of $55, those 100 people would pay for it.

  3. Dan D · 1055 days ago

    If you ask me, this is pretty much proof that Apple's approach to app distribution is not as trustworthy as many like to think it is. The fact that they would allow something that could potentially do this makes it clear that they don't really test the apps very well.

  4. Dave · 1055 days ago

    How about we all stop using iOS apps? I promise to stop. I really will.

  5. anon · 1055 days ago

    Sounds like something jokey you put in during development & testing. How about a test script that writes letters "Dear Mr Smith, you owe us £2 million and if you don't pay up we'll send the boys round to break your legs" - Well, it's only a test, so what does it matter? Unfortunately it got printed on the wrong colour paper, put in envelopes and sent to customers. Embarrassing?

  6. njorl · 1051 days ago

    "stole Enfour's apps"
    "wanted the thievery to stop"

    What was it they were selling, again?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.