Google recently booted over a dozen apps from its Play Store—among them Muslim prayer apps with 10 million-plus downloads, a barcode scanner, and a clock—after researchers discovered secret data-harvesting code hidden within them. Creepier still, the clandestine code was engineered by a company linked to a Virginia defense contractor, which paid developers to incorporate its code into their apps to pilfer users’ data.
While conducting research, researchers came upon a piece of code that had been implanted in multiple apps that was being used to siphon off personal identifiers and other data from devices. The code, a software development kit, or SDK, could “without a doubt be described as malware,” one researcher said.
For the most part, the apps in question appear to have served basic, repetitive functions—the sort that a person might download and then promptly forget about. However, once implanted onto the user’s phone, the SDK-laced programs harvested important data points about the device and its users like phone numbers and email addresses, researchers revealed.
The Wall Street Journal originally reported that the weird, invasive code, was discovered by a pair of researchers, Serge Egelman, and Joel Reardon, both of whom co-founded an organization called AppCensus, which audits mobile apps for user privacy and security. In a blog post on their findings, Reardon writes that AppCensus initially reached out to Google about their findings in October of 2021. However, the apps ultimately weren’t expunged from the Play store until March 25 after Google had investigated, the Journal reports