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Google might be gearing up to remove millions of Play Store apps next month

Take a look at the digital shelves of the Google Play Store and you’re likely to come across a bevy of so-called zombie apps. These apps typically take the form of a knock-off of a popular game or a sloppy utility that doesn’t quite match its description, and they strategically turn up alongside legitimate apps, which makes them hard to spot if you’re not doing a forensic analysis of reviews while you shop.

Now it looks like something is finally being done about them. In a letter uncovered by The Next Web, Google has begun warning some developers that one or more of their apps has been flagged for a lack of an adequate privacy policy, a common problem among these sort of hastily published and subsequently ignored apps.

The Next Web

Google has begun warning developers to update their apps or face removal from the Play Store.

In the message, Google reiterates its policy, which “requires developers to provide a valid privacy policy when the app requests or handles sensitive user information.” Such permissions include camera, microphone, account, contacts, or phone access, which requires a transparent disclosure of how user data is handled, according to Google’s requirements. It's unclear how many letters were sent out, but The Next Web estimates it could affect millions of apps.

This is hardly a new policy for Google, but this push could be the start of a tougher new application of it. As Google spells out in its developer guidelines: “If your app collects and transmits personal or sensitive user data unrelated to functionality described prominently in the app’s listing on Google Play or in the app interface, then prior to the collection and transmission, it must prominently highlight how the user data will be used and have the user provide affirmative consent for such use.”

While the lack of a proper privacy policy is most certainly an honest mistake for some developers, it’s just as likely that many will ignore this message and face whatever consequences Google has in store for them.

The email urges developers to update their Play Store listings with a valid privacy policy or remove the offending permissions request from the app. It gives a deadline of March 15 to comply with the request or “administrative action will be taken to limit the visibility of your app, up to and including removal from the Play Store.” 

Google isn't playing around: Developers and users have long complained about the Play Store’s somewhat lax rules toward letting these types of apps in, and this could be a sign that Google is finally working to clean things up. The Play Store is littered with apps of questionable repute, and many of them have flown under Google’s radar for too long. This move could negatively impact millions of apps, as well as benefit honest developers, but the effect on users will be even greater, enabling them to seek and find legitimate apps rather than cheap imitations. And by tackling the problem from a privacy standpoint, Google is not only cleaning up the Play Store, it’s also recommitting to the security and protection of its users.

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