Google clarifies commercial spyware ban for Play store

Apps sold on Play store not allowed to track user activity in secret, according to updated developer guidelines

Google has made it clear that commercial Android apps sold on the Play store are not allowed to secretly track user activity.

The company released Friday an update to the Spyware section of its developer guidelines that bans apps from hiding, cloaking or misleading users about surveillance functionality. In addition, apps that track activity must present a "full-time persistent notification and icon that clearly identifies the app." 

Google also introduced an App Promotion policy that requires developers to "clearly disclose" when an advertised feature in the app's description requires an in-app payment.

In addition, Google changed its System Interference policy to prohibit developers from making browser modifications on behalf of third parties or advertisements. Google reminded developers that in its Ads Policy, all advertising behavior must be attributed to the app it came with and clearly presented only in the context of the app.

Google warns developers that new apps or app updates published henceforth will have to comply with the changes. For existing apps, developers have 15 days to bring them into compliance.

"After this period, existing apps discovered to be in violation may be subject to warning or removal from Google Play," according to an email sent to developers by Google Play. The email was published on Google+ by IT pro Anthony Farrior.

Tielei Wang, security researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said the new policies would "definitely narrow the gray zone" in which apps use advertising techniques or functionality that fall short of malware, but could be considered unethical.

However, Google's success in bringing app developers in line with its new policies will depend on enforcement.

"I don't know if Google has technical solutions to ensure that any third-party apps are unable to carry out such actions," Wang told CSOonline Monday. "If not, we cannot expect malicious apps to cooperatively comply with the policies." 

Security researchers have found overly aggressive advertising on some Android apps, particularly those that are provided at no charge.

Behavior considered a nuisance, but not bad enough to be malicious, include creating home screen short cuts, altering default search engines and using up memory and processor cycles in ways that degrade performance.

In general, an app is found to violate privacy when it gathers more personal information than was approved by the user and sells that data to advertisers. Google permits app developers to only collect data they have permission to gather.

The recent changes appear to indicate a recognition that adware has to be watched to prevent damaging the overall user experience on an Android device.

"This is really I think an acknowledgment that Google understands this is a problem and it's going to be enforcing some additional protections to ultimately protect consumers," said Elias Manousos, chief executive of RiksIQ, a web and mobile security vendor.

On the security side, the Federal Trade Commission has been taking a growing interest in how mobile app developers protect user personal information.

The commission announced Friday that it had settled a complaint that accused Fandango and Credit Karma of failing to take "reasonable steps" to secure personal information when transmitting it over the Internet.

The complaint charged both companies with disabling SSL certification validation, which left their apps vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, particularly over public Wi-Fi networks.

Fandango, an online movie ticket seller, transmitted credit card details, email addresses, passwords and other information insecurely. Credit Karma, a personal finance site, did the same with social security numbers, credit scores and other credit report details.

The settlements require the companies to correct the security problems and to undergo independent security assessments every other year for the next 20 years, the FTC said.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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