How we fought bad apps and developers in 2020 (Google Online Security Blog)

Providing safe experiences to billions of users and millions of Android developers has been one of the highest priorities for Google Play for many years. Last year we introduced new policies, improved our systems, and further optimized our processes to better protect our users, assist good developers and strengthen our guard against bad apps and developers. Additionally, in 2020, Google Play Protect scanned over 100B installed apps each day for malware across billions of devices.

Users come to Google Play to find helpful, reliable apps on everything from COVID-19 vaccine information to new forms of entertainment, grocery delivery, communication and more.

As such, we introduced a series of policies and new developer support to continue to elevate information quality on the platform and reduce the risk of user harm from misinformation.

  • COVID-19 apps requirements: To ensure public safety, information integrity and privacy, we introduced specific requirements for COVID-19 apps. Under these requirements, apps related to sensitive use cases, such as those providing testing information, must be endorsed by either official governmental entities or healthcare organizations and must meet a high standard for user data privacy.
  • News policy: To promote transparency in news publishing, we introduced minimum requirements that apps must meet in order for developers to declare their app as a “News” app on Google Play. These guidelines help promote user transparency and developer accountability by providing users with relevant information about the app.
  • Election support: We created teams and processes across Google Play focused on elections to provide additional support and adapt to the changing landscape. This includes support for government agencies, specially trained app reviewers, and a safety team to address election threats and abuse.

Our core efforts around identifying and mitigating bad apps and developers continued to evolve to address new adversarial behaviors and forms of abuse. Our machine-learning detection capabilities and enhanced app review processes prevented over 962k policy-violating app submissions from getting published to Google Play. We also banned 119k malicious and spammy developer accounts. Additionally, we significantly increased our focus on SDK enforcement, as we’ve found these violations have an outsized impact on security and user data privacy.

Last year, we continued to reduce developer access to sensitive permissions. In February, we announced a new background location policy to ensure that apps requesting this permission need the data in order to provide clear user benefit. As a result of the new policy, developers now have to demonstrate that benefit and prominently tell users about it or face possible removal from Google Play. We’ve begun enforcement on apps not meeting new policy guidelines and will provide an update on the usage of this permission in a future blog post.

We’ve also continued to invest in protecting kids and helping parents find great content. In 2020 we launched a new kids tab filled with “Teacher approved” apps. To evaluate apps, we teamed with academic experts and teachers across the country, including our lead advisors, Joe Blatt (Harvard Graduate School of Education) and Dr. Sandra Calvert (Georgetown University).

As we continue to invest in protecting people from apps with harmful content, malicious behaviors, or threats to user privacy, we are also equally motivated to provide trusted experiences to Play developers. For example, we’ve improved our process for providing relevant information about enforcement actions we’ve taken, resulting in significant reduction in appeals and increased developer satisfaction. We will continue to enhance the speed and quality of our communications to developers, and continue listening to feedback about how we can further engage and elevate trusted developers. Android developers can expect to see more on this front in the coming year.

Our global teams of product managers, engineers, policy experts, and operations leaders are more excited than ever to advance the safety of the platform and forge a sustaining trust with our users. We look forward to building an even better Google Play experience.