The apps we downloaded from Google Play also showed differences based on country in their security and privacy capabilities. One hundred twenty-seven apps varied in what the apps were allowed to access on users’ mobile phones, 49 of which had additional permissions deemed “dangerous” by Google. Apps in Bahrain, Tunisia and Canada requested the most additional dangerous permissions.
Three VPN apps enable clear text communication in some countries, which allows unauthorized access to users’ communications. One hundred and eighteen apps varied in the number of ad trackers included in an app in some countries, with the categories Games, Entertainment and Social, with Iran and Ukraine having the most increases in the number of ad trackers compared to the baseline number common to all countries.
One hundred and three apps have differences based on country in their privacy policies. Users in countries not covered by data protection regulations, such as GDPR in the EU and the California Consumer Privacy Act in the U.S., are at higher privacy risk. For instance, 71 apps available from Google Play have clauses to comply with GDPR only in the EU and CCPA only in the U.S. Twenty-eight apps that use dangerous permissions make no mention of it, despite Google’s policy requiring them to do so.
App stores allow developers to target their apps to users based on a wide array of factors, including their country and their device’s specific features. Though Google has taken some steps toward transparency in its app store, our research shows that there are shortcomings in Google’s auditing of the app ecosystem, some of which could put users’ security and privacy at risk.
Potentially also as a result of app store policies in some countries, app stores that specialize in specific regions of the world are becoming increasingly popular. However, these app stores may not have adequate vetting policies, thereby allowing altered versions of apps to reach users. For example, a national government could pressure a developer to provide a version of an app that includes backdoor access. There is no straightforward way for users to distinguish an altered app from an unaltered one.
Our research provides several recommendations to app store proprietors to address the issues we found:
This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Renuka Kumar, University of Michigan. The Conversation has a variety of fascinating free newsletters.
Renuka Kumar does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.