Google and Apple have removed hundreds of apps from their app stores at the request of governments around the world, creating regional disparities in access to mobile apps at a time when many economies are becoming increasingly dependent on them.
The mobile phone giants have removed over 200 Chinese apps, including widely downloaded apps like TikTok, at the Indian government’s request in recent years. Similarly, the companies removed LinkedIn, an essential app for professional networking, from Russian app stores at the Russian government’s request.
However, access to apps is just one concern. Developers also regionalize apps, meaning they produce different versions for different countries. This raises the question of whether these apps differ in their security and privacy capabilities based on region.
In a perfect world, access to apps and app security and privacy capabilities would be consistent everywhere. Popular mobile apps should be available without increasing the risk that users are spied on or tracked based on what country they’re in, especially given that not every country has strong data protection regulations.
My colleagues and I recently studied the availability and privacy policies of thousands of globally popular apps on Google Play, the app store for Android devices, in 26 countries. We found differences in app availability, security, and privacy.
While our study corroborates reports of takedowns due to government requests, we also found many differences introduced by app developers. We found instances of apps with settings and disclosures that expose users to higher or lower security and privacy risks depending on the country in which they’re downloaded.
The countries and one special administrative region in our study are diverse in location, population and gross domestic product. They include the US, Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, Hong Kong, and India. We also included countries like Iran, Zimbabwe, and Tunisia, where it was difficult to collect data. We studied 5,684 globally popular apps, each with over 1 million installs, from the top 22 app categories, including Books and Reference, Education, Medical, and News and Magazines.
Our study showed high amounts of geoblocking, with 3,672 of 5,684 globally popular apps blocked in at least one of our 26 countries. Blocking by developers was significantly higher than takedowns requested by governments in all our countries and app categories. We found that Iran and Tunisia have the highest blocking rates, with apps like Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, Flipboard, and Google Books all unavailable for download.