Featured Article

Android’s new real-time app scanning aims to combat malicious sideloaded apps

Here’s our hands-on review of the new Android security feature

Comment

a blue background with eyes featuring a red phone in the middle
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Android’s in-built security engine Google Play Protect has a new feature that conducts a real-time analysis of an Android app’s code and blocks it from installing the app if it’s considered potentially harmful.

Google announced in October the new real-time app scanning feature built into Google Play Protect that the company says can help catch malicious or fake sideloaded apps installed from outside the app store. These apps will morph their appearance or use AI to alter the apps’ code in a way that helps them avoid detection.

Google said this Play Protect feature now recommends a real-time app scan for any new app that has never been scanned before. This consists of a code analysis that will “extract important signals from the app and send them to the Play Protect backend infrastructure for a code-level evaluation.”

Android’s app store has billions of apps that Google screens for malware, though not always successfully. Many device owners also take to sideloading Android apps, which skirt the app store altogether and its many lines of defense. Sideloading remains a popular feature for Android users, even if it means having to trust that the app they are installing is not malicious.

One of the key reasons for Google to introduce its enhanced real-time code-level scanning feature is to counter the proliferation of predatory loan apps. These apps have resulted in the harassment of users, leading in some cases to victims taking their own lives. Bad actors gain access to user data, including contacts and photos, which are used to bully users. TechCrunch extensively covered the impact of predatory loan apps on Indian users. Google also said it took down over 3,500 such apps in the year for violating its policy requirements. Attackers still find ways to target their victims.

“Our policies are making it tougher for predatory apps to be listed on the Play Store. But the bad actors are inventive, and they are finding new ways to trick people and that is why we take additional measures,” said Saikat Mitra, Google’s head of trust and safety for APAC at the Google for India event in New Delhi last month, while announcing the update to Play Protect.

Google initially launched the Play Protect update in India, with plans to soon expand internationally. TechCrunch tried the feature out for ourselves by loading a phone with a variety of malicious and bad apps to see what would make it through.

We tried to install more than 30 different malicious apps, from stalkerware and spyware to predatory loan apps and fake ripoffs of popular apps. Google Play Protect blocked nearly all of the malicious apps with warnings like, “Apps from unknown developers can sometimes be unsafe,” and “This app tries to spy on your personal data, such as SMS messages, photos, audio recordings, or call history,” or, “This app is fake.” A handful of recently created predatory loan apps, however, were successfully installed.

three screenshots showing Google Play Protect's real-time app scanning in effect
Screenshots showing Google Play Protect’s real-time app scanning checking to see if an app is malicious. Image Credits: Google

To test out the scope of the Play Protect update, we used a Pixel 7a with a fresh install of Android 14 with the updated Google Play Store featuring real-time code-level scanning.

We began the testing on the Pixel 7a by trying to install various spyware apps that have rebranded or been cloned, or otherwise had code changes that would attempt to evade detection. (We’re not naming or linking to the apps given their malicious nature.) Commercial surveillance apps, like stalkerware or spouseware, are typically surreptitiously installed by someone with physical access to a person’s phone, often a spouse or domestic partner. These spyware apps silently and continually upload the contents of the person’s phone, including messages, photos and real-time location data, and present a major security and privacy risk to the people whose phones are compromised.

Play Protect intervened each time we tried to install spyware and stalkerware. The feature blocked the apps from installing, labeling the apps “harmful.”

We also picked a handful of predatory loan apps that were disguised as popular Android apps. These loan apps upload the device’s contact list to a server under the guise of fraud prevention, and loan agents can use this access to send threatening and intimidating messages and calls to their contacts. The landing page of one of the predatory loan apps resembled a regular Google Play listing, but required the user to download and manually sideload the app from outside the app store.

The Play Protect update did not restrict five predatory loan apps from installing at the time of our testing.

We also tried to install a couple of apps that appear to be fake versions of other popular apps listed on Google Play. The apps we tested are similarly named and feature near-identical designs and user experiences, but are clearly underdeveloped knock-offs. One of the fake apps imitated a popular game and the other masqueraded as a widely used VPN app.

Play Protect allowed these two apps to be installed, though it’s unclear for what purpose the fake apps were initially developed.

“With this recent enhancement, we’re adding real-time scanning at the code-level to Google Play Protect to combat novel malicious apps, regardless of if the app was downloaded from Google Play or elsewhere,” said Google spokesperson Scott Westover in an email to TechCrunch when reached for comment. “These capabilities will continue to evolve and improve over time, as Google Play Protect collects and analyzes new types of threats facing the Android ecosystem.”

Sideloading allows the freedom to install any Android app but not without risk. Faced with an ongoing deluge of apps that quickly change their appearance and code, Google’s new real-time app scanning feature is an important last line of defense for billions of users and bound to only improve over time.

These Android features will help protect your digital privacy

More TechCrunch

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

1 day ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

1 day ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo