Google Boots Out 3 Immensely Popular Android Apps from Play Store: Questions About Content Policing Resurface

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With such a flourishing wilderness of Android apps on the Google Play Store, there is every likelihood of encountering something seemingly innocuous which bites back.

Such certainly seems to be the case with the three apps that Google has now pulled off from the Play Store. The kids’ apps in question – Princess Salon​, Number Coloring, and Cats & Cosplay, each of whom enjoyed immense popularity among the younger ones, are the ones that slipped in with shady activity. Though seemingly benign at first glance, they were given the hook for breaching Google’s data collection policies.

The incident was reported by researchers at the International Digital Accountability Council (IDAC), a non-profit scrutineer based out of Boston. The trio of apps, aimed at younger users, were found to be violating Google’s data collection policies, potentially accessing users’ Android ID and AAID (Android Advertising ID) numbers. In addition, the possibility of data leakage from these apps, potentially connected to the apps being built using SDKs from Unity, Umeng and Appodeal, caused Google to take such swift and decisive action.

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The scope of concerning factors with the development is on multiple fronts. First and foremost is the fact that before Google was made aware of such practices, the apps had amassed more than 20 million downloads between them. The wider one lies with the publishers’ approach to adhering to the data protection policies laid out. Even though the app was meant for a younger audience, the practices observed in IDAC’s research raised grave questions about data practices employed by these apps.

Perturbation lies also because, in the case of two of the publishers, Creative APPS and Libii Tech, their other apps are still live and running. Moreover, those versions of the apps are also still downloadable through some APK sites. However, IDAC’s tech team refrained from pulling the plug on them as yet because they didn’t see any analogous concerns. The situation will continue to be monitored stringently.

Clearly, the violations which occurred in this instance are complex, nonetheless an example of one of the ways that users can unknowingly be tracked through apps. IDAC has also highlighted three SDKs in particular used by the app developers – the Unity 3D and game engine, Umeng (an Alibaba-owned analytics provider known as the “Flurry of China”) and Appodeal as the source of the issues. This was mainly in regard to the behind-the-scenes activity which ensues and the data processing that gets loaded into innocent-looking apps.

The activity has put Google into a renewed spotlight, especially when a lot of questions are being asked of Google and the size of its operation. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice and 11 states sued the company, accusing it of monopolistic and anticompetitive behaviour in search and search advertising. Even from the Land Down Under, the government has backed the US DoJ’s decision. Australia’s competition watchdog is also reportedly mulling its own antitrust case against Google for abusing its dominance in online search and advertising.

With such a global footprint, Google needs to be proactive in finding better ways to police its content in the first place.

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We are witnessing a heightened awareness of privacy issues all over. Lack of trust going forward is one arrow that can be guaranteed to fell any giant.

Stay tuned to this space for more updates.

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