Earlier this week, the Data Center of China Internet (DCCI) released a report (h/t Tech In Asia) that showed nearly 35 percent of the Android apps it surveyed were secretly stealing user data unrelated to the app’s functionality. The DCCI, a research institute, looked at 1,400 apps downloaded from different app markets and found that 66.9 percent were tracking users’ private data, with 34.5 percent collecting information that had no connection to the app’s usage.
The DCCI’s findings are yet more signs of how fragmented and chaotic China’s Android market is–and how little control Google has over it, despite the Chinese government’s concerns about its supposed dominance. Just last week, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a white paper that said Google has too much control over China’s smartphone industry via Android and has discriminated against domestic companies, in part by making it difficult for Chinese firms to develop their own operating systems.
But as TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas wrote last week, even though Android dominates the OS landscape in China, “not all Chinese Android-powered devices are equal since a large proportion of homegrown mobile makers heavily customise Android and do not carry any of the standard Google services such as its Play store.”
Many observers believe that “Chinadroids,” or no-name devices that have been equipped with modified versions of Android, will take over China’s mobile market in the near future. As TechRice notes, sales of these forked devices may be lucrative, but ChinaDroids are also a valuable gateway to content, starting with in-app purchases and then becoming the “terminal of choice” for e-commerce. Google’s absence has created “fierce and chaotic competition to control content delivery channels in China.”
The DCCI’s recent report shows that all data in user’s phones is up for grabs, from calling records to contacts. According to its report, more than half of the apps studied tracked user locations, with 13.2 percent doing so even though user location had nothing to do with the app’s functionality. Even the most innocuous-seeming apps–study and beauty apps, for instance–are among the worst offenders when it comes to location-tracking.
Google Play does not support paid apps in China. This is in part because of Google’s complicated relationship with the Chinese government, but it could also be because the company’s is concerned that Android’s openness lends itself to abuse by malware developers and spammers.
But as analyst Shiv Putcha of Ovum puts it, “Android is fragmenting beyond Google’s control, and Google’s Android strategy is rapidly coming undone in China with no immediate prospects for correction.”
Google Play has become a relatively minor distribution channel in China, with most app developers giving the Android app .apk file directly to consumers instead of linking to the Play Store. Dozens of competing app stores, with varying degrees of trustiworthiness, have popped up. The DCCI’s report is another sign that, despite the Chinese government assertions that the Internet giant has too much control, the Android ecosystem in that country is no longer under Google’s steerage.