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How we fought bad apps and bad actors in 2023

A safe and trusted Google Play experience is our top priority. We leverage our SAFE (see below) principles to provide the framework to create that experience for both users and developers. Here’s what these principles mean in practice:

  • (S)afeguard our Users. Help them discover quality apps that they can trust.
  • (A)dvocate for Developer Protection. Build platform safeguards to enable developers to focus on growth.
  • (F)oster Responsible Innovation. Thoughtfully unlock value for all without compromising on user safety.
  • (E)volve Platform Defenses. Stay ahead of emerging threats by evolving our policies, tools and technology.

With those principles in mind, we’ve made recent improvements and introduced new measures to continue to keep Google Play’s users safe, even as the threat landscape continues to evolve. In 2023, we prevented 2.28 million policy-violating apps from being published on Google Play1 in part thanks to our investment in new and improved security features, policy updates, and advanced machine learning and app review processes. We have also strengthened our developer onboarding and review processes, requiring more identity information when developers first establish their Play accounts. Together with investments in our review tooling and processes, we identified bad actors and fraud rings more effectively and banned 333K bad accounts from Play for violations like confirmed malware and repeated severe policy violations.

Additionally, almost 200K app submissions were rejected or remediated to ensure proper use of sensitive permissions such as background location or SMS access. To help safeguard user privacy at scale, we partnered with SDK providers to limit sensitive data access and sharing, enhancing the privacy posture for over 31 SDKs impacting 790K+ apps. We also significantly expanded the Google Play SDK Index, which now covers the SDKs used in almost 6 million apps across the Android ecosystem. This valuable resource helps developers make better SDK choices, boosts app quality and minimizes integration risks.

Protecting the Android Ecosystem

Building on our success with the App Defense Alliance (ADA), we partnered with Microsoft and Meta as steering committee members in the newly restructured ADA under the Joint Development Foundation, part of the Linux Foundation family. The Alliance will support industry-wide adoption of app security best practices and guidelines, as well as countermeasures against emerging security risks.

Additionally, we announced new Play Store transparency labeling to highlight VPN apps that have completed an independent security review through App Defense Alliance’s Mobile App Security Assessment (MASA). When a user searches for VPN apps, they will now see a banner at the top of Google Play that educates them about the “Independent security review” badge in the Data safety section. This helps users see at-a-glance that a developer has prioritized security and privacy best practices and is committed to user safety.

To better protect our customers who install apps outside of the Play Store, we made Google Play Protect’s security capabilities even more powerful with real-time scanning at the code-level to combat novel malicious apps. Our security protections and machine learning algorithms learn from each app submitted to Google for review and we look at thousands of signals and compare app behavior. This new capability has already detected over 5 million new, malicious off-Play apps, which helps protect Android users worldwide.

More Stringent Developer Requirements and Guidelines

Last year we updated Play policies around Generative AI apps, disruptive notifications, and expanded privacy protections. We also are raising the bar for new personal developer accounts by requiring new testing requirements before developers can make their app available on Google Play. By testing their apps, getting feedback and ensuring everything is ready before they launch, developers are able to bring more high quality content to Play users. In order to increase trust and transparency, we’ve introduced expanded developer verification requirements, including D-U-N-S numbers for organizations and a new “About the developer” section.

To give users more control over their personal data, apps that enable account creation now need to provide an option to initiate account and data deletion from within the app and online. This web requirement is especially important so that a user can request account and data deletion without having to reinstall an app. To simplify the user experience, we have also incorporated this as a feature within the Data safety section of the Play Store.

With each iteration of the Android operating system (including its robust set of APIs), a myriad of enhancements are introduced, aiming to elevate the user experience, bolster security protocols, and optimize the overall performance of the Android platform. To further safeguard our customers, approximately 1.5 million applications that do not target the most recent APIs are no longer available in the Play Store to new users who have updated their devices to the latest Android version.

Looking Ahead

Protecting users and developers on Google Play is paramount and ever-evolving. We’re launching new security initiatives in 2024, including removing apps from Play that are not transparent about their privacy practices.

We also recently filed a lawsuit in federal court against two fraudsters who made multiple misrepresentations to upload fraudulent investment and crypto exchange apps on Play to scam users. This lawsuit is a critical step in holding these bad actors accountable and sending a clear message that we will aggressively pursue those who seek to take advantage of our users.

We’re constantly working on new ways to protect your experience on Google Play and across the entire Android ecosystem, and we look forward to sharing more.

Notes


  1. In accordance with the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) reporting requirements, Google Play now calculates policy violations based on developer communications sent. 


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Article_Author: Edward Fernandez