FIF’s disappearing app
ISLAMABAD: The Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) vaulted ahead of other political and religious groups when it launched a mobile app to highlight its philanthropic work among smartphone users. But the app, which was available for download for at least ten days, has now mysteriously disappeared from the Google Play store.
FIF is the charitable arm of the Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaatud Dawa (JuD); the group that India accuses of masterminding the Mumbai terror attacks. It is one of the few organisations in Pakistan with its own ‘Cyber Team’ of volunteers that manage the group’s activities online and on social media.
The app, according to members of the social media team, was created to allow users to obtain up-to-date information on the foundation’s activities and register for donations online.
“We have different social media teams for all branches of the JuD; we developed the app ourselves and are operating it indigenously,” said Salman Shahid, who is in-charge of the FIF social media team.
He said the app was aimed at imparting information, related to FIF’s disaster management efforts, to interested parties. It also includes the option to provide feedback, and users can even donate to FIF via the app.
The app was launched on Mar 12, 2015. In a video message, FIF Chairman Hafiz Abdur Rauf hailed the app as a way for donors and philanthropists to keep abreast of the foundation’s activities on a daily basis.
The app had been available for download on the Google Play store since its launch and Dawn accessed and downloaded the app on Mar 22, 2016. The next day, searches for ‘FIF’ on Google Play did not yield any matches. Links to download the app, provided by FIF on their social media accounts, also stopped working on Mar 23.
When asked to comment, members of the FIF social media team seemed unaware of the development. However, after confirming that the app was no longer available for download, a member of the social media team said they would get in touch with Google today (Thursday) because they were busy with Pakistan Day activities.
Another JuD official, however, voiced suspicion that the app may have been taken down on “Indian lobbying”, saying that similar things had happened in the past with the group’s pages on Facebook and Twitter.
“While we don’t comment on specific apps, we can confirm that our policies are designed to provide a great experience for users and developers. We remove apps from Google Play that violate those policies,” a Google spokesperson said when asked to comment on the FIF app.
“It looks like in this case, the app was removed by the developer voluntarily,” the spokesperson told Dawn in an email.
Like all other mobile apps, the FIF app also requires access to certain data on a user’s handset, including personal information such as the user’s profile and their identity, as well as their contact list.
Google pointed out that all data requirements are the developer’s own. In addition, app developers based at the Arfa Software Technology Park in Lahore told Dawn that any data requested by an app is always processed and/or stored by the developer or the individuals who operate its ‘back-end’.
Although no government approval is required before an app can be submitted to Google, the internet giant has its own ‘Developer Policy’, under which it weeds out apps that may contain malicious software or those that may be linked to terrorist groups.
In addition, the Internet giant claimed it had increased the amount of proactive review before an app is published on Google Play in order to better protect users.
“If users come across any apps that are in violation of our developer policies, we encourage them to report it to our support team.”
Shahzad Ahmed, who leads the digital rights group Bytes For All, told Dawn that there were several privacy concerns associated with smartphone apps. “Physical jurisdiction over where the data is stored is a key concern because it is governed by local laws.” Users’ rights may be compromised in places where laws against data theft are lenient, he said.
“This makes a case for stronger protections for users, who routinely sign away their privacy when they allow apps access to their personal data,” he concluded.
Other users Dawn spoke to expressed the fear that with unfettered access to Pakistani smartphone users’ data, FIF held a lot of power over its users. Without robust security mechanisms, it is possible that the information can be misused or even leaked.
However, the FIF social media team says they are confident that their app cannot be misused for phone hacking or spreading viruses.
“Any app can only be used for hacking if it is developed with certain parameters in mind. We did not do that because it was not our requirement,” Salman Shahid told Dawn.
He also expressed the confidence that none of his comrades could misuse their administrator privileges over the data collected by the app. “We have human resources that are IT experts: if we can develop an app, we also know how to protect it,” Mr Shahid added.
“We have a system; there are counter-checks at all levels and we can only operate because of trust: that is why people entrust their money and donations to us,” a senior JuD official told Dawn.