Apps can pose a bigger security and privacy threat depending on where you download them

Google and Apple have removed hundreds of apps from their app stores at the behest of governments around the world, creating regional disparities in access to mobile apps at a time when many economies are becoming increasingly reliant on them .

Mobile phone giants have taken down more than 200 Chinese apps, including widely downloaded apps like TikTok, at the request of the Indian government in recent years. Similarly, the companies removed LinkedIn, an essential app for professional networking, from Russian app stores at the request of the Russian government.

However, app access is only a concern. Developers also regionalize apps, which means they produce different versions for different countries. This raises the question of whether these apps differ in their security and privacy capabilities depending on the region.

In a perfect world, access to apps and app security and privacy features would be consistent everywhere. Popular mobile apps should be available without increasing the risk of users being spied on or tracked depending on the country they are in, especially since not all countries have strong data protection regulations.

My colleagues and I recently researched 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 supports reports of withdrawals due to government requests, we also found many differences introduced by app developers. We found examples of apps with settings and disclosures that expose users to higher or lower security and privacy risks depending on the country in which they are downloaded.

Geo-blocked apps

The countries and special administrative region in our study are diverse in terms of location, population, and gross domestic product. They include the United States, 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 a million installs, across 22 major app categories, including Books & Reference, Education, Medical, and News & Magazines.

Our research showed high amounts of geoblocking, with 3,672 of 5,684 globally popular apps blocked in at least one of our 26 countries. Developer blocking was significantly higher than government-requested takedowns in all of 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 not available for download.

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