Going rogue: money-stealing apps running riot in China, sneakily downloading software and pilfering private data

Industry insiders blame rivalry among 100s of Android app stores in absence of unifying Google Play

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2016, 8:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2016, 8:30am

Fierce competition among smartphone app stores in China has resulted in a market filled with rogue apps that levy secret charges on users, collect their personal information or automatically install other software without their permission, according to industry insiders.

Some of the apps are designed to automatically download certain apps in order to drive up their popularity, said Richard Cheng, a council member of the Hong Kong-based Internet Professional Association.

“Everybody is trying hard to grab a piece of the market,” he said.

China’s three biggest internet companies - search engine Baidu, e-commerce giant Alibaba and gaming and social titan Tencent - all have mobile software listed by the government as rogue apps, according to a report from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) last week.

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One example would be Baidu’s Mobile Assistant, a content portal for apps, games and background pictures that installs other Baidu apps on your smartphone without asking for your permission. Critics complain that it is also too aggressive in pushing ads for certain apps.

Even though Google Play is unavailable in mainland China, handsets that run Google’s Android OS claim over 74 per cent of the Chinese market, according to data from Statista.com in December.

Google withdrew its services in 2010 in the wake of data privacy and other disagreements with Beijing, meaning that netizens in the country cannot access Google, Gmail or other services unless they pay for a virtual private network that uses remote servers to bypass the so-called Great Firewall.

This absence has given rise to a series of Chinese app stores competing with each other to fill the gap.

“There are hundreds of app stores in China,” said Jordan Cheng, chief executive of Hong Kong-based mobile app developer Mad Mobile.

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But they all lack sufficient staff to ferret out and identify rogue apps, he added.

The segmented Android market also makes it more difficult for developers to do business in China. Mad Mobile selected five major app stores on the mainland but finds the level of repetition involved in setting up on them laborious.

“We have to repeat the process of setting up the apps five times, every time,” said its CEO.

The same applies to updating the apps.

For other markets, Jordan Cheng said he only needs to deal with a single store once - Google Play.

Richard Cheng (no relation) said that China’s big hitters should team up to resolve the problem.

“It would only require the collaboration of key players like Baidu, Tencent and Xiaomi to build one comprehensive app store,” he said.

“But right now, they are all battling with each other.”