For a long time, the Play Store could be considered the wild west of app distribution, especially compared to Apple's inherently more restrictive App Store. Google is working on improvements though and is becoming more stringent on app permissions, among other things. Still, we're back with another ad fraud scheme right inside the Store, following in the footsteps of last year's Cheetah Mobile investigation. Another Chinese app developer, DO Global, is alleged to have added code in its apps that automatically clicks on ads without users' knowledge.
BuzzFeed News first brought these findings to light in collaboration with security researchers Check Point and Method Media Intelligence. They found out that the app developer in question is a spin-off from Chinese giant Baidu who only became independent last year. Its apps amassed more than 90 million downloads before Google removed the listings.
DO Global's products are sketchy to look at in the first place. They're all either replicating system functionality like camera and flashlight or promise to clean up your phone to make it faster, which will often actually end up slowing down phones. But look for yourself, these are the six removed apps: Selfie Camera, Total Cleaner, Smart Cooler, RAM Master, AIO Flashlight, and Omni Cleaner.
There are two parts of this fraud. First, DO Global wasn't listed as the developer for most of these apps but used a US parent company for publishing on the Play Store, making users believe they were installing an American product. Of course, this is against Google's policy. Second, the apps were programmed to automatically click on ads, stealing money from advertisers who don't get any real user interaction with their offerings. Since this happened in the background while the screen is turned off, users might've also experienced worse battery life and unexpected data bills.
BuzzFeed News also mentions that many apps on the Play Store abuse permissions and non-transparent privacy policies to suck personal data from users, but it doesn't point towards specific apps or developers there.
We can only hope that Google continues to take more control over the Play Store and manages to actually force its customer protection policies on app developers, which the company already started to do by requiring higher target APIs and monitoring phone and SMS permissions more closely.
Given the serious allegations against DO Global, it was only a matter of time before we would see some kind of response. And while Google has yet to make a full public statement, it looks like it's moving towards outright banning the developer.
BuzzFeed reports that dozens of apps associated with DO Global have already been purged from the Play Store, and more are expected to follow. Though Google hasn't confirmed just how many apps it plans to remove, nor whether this constitutes a formal ban on DO Global, that's exactly how an insider source reportedly describes the situation.
Google following through on these actions may be an extreme response, but considering the charges laid out against DO Global, one that would be hard to argue is unwarranted. Ultimately, it's in Google's interest to do everything it can to discourage devs from violating its policies, and this may be an attempt to show that even high-profile developers aren't immune from repercussions.
DO Global statement
In response to the original article by BuzzFeed and subsequent coverage by numerous publications, DO Global has posted the below statement on its site. In it, the company says it accepts Google's decision and the allegations against it. DO Global asserts that it has launched an investigation and is examining all of its apps and promises to "strictly follow regulations" in the future.
In the past week, we have noticed a series of reports about our apps by the media. We fully understand the seriousness of the allegations. As such, we immediately conducted an internal investigation on this matter. We regret to find irregularities in some of our products’ use of AdMob advertisements. Given this, we fully understand and accept Google's decision. Moreover, we have actively cooperated with them by doing a thorough examination of every app involved.
We would like to thank the media, our partners, and the public for their support. Moving forward, we will strictly follow relevant regulations and continue conducting a comprehensive review of our products. Lastly, during this process, we have caused misunderstandings and great concern due to our being unable to communicate in a timely manner and provide complete information. We offer our sincere apologies.
- DO Global
- BuzzFeed News