Google patents a way to flag pirated Play Store apps

April 5, 2014
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App piracy and app cloning is a real problem on Android. Searching for just about any popular app in the Play Store reveals dozens of apps that are clearly designed to confuse users into downloading them, even if they have nothing to do with the real thing.

Google has explicit policies against misleading or trademark-infringing apps, but with over a million apps in the Store and no human review process for each upload, shady apps constantly sneak in. The company currently relies on user feedback for flagging bad apps, but a newly granted patent gives us hope that a better solution could be coming in the future.

The patent, first filed in July 2013 and awarded last week, describes an algorithm that compares the assets of a submitted app (code, images, audio, data files) with those of “authorized” apps that were uploaded by established developers. For instance, a legitimate app that was modified to include malware would fail this test. The same would happen with apps that are simply re-named clones of other apps submitted as original work.

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It’s not clear whether this algorithm will be able to identify loose similitudes between apps or will just flag assets that are obviously copied. The patent mentions a way to identify open source code, so apps based on it would pass the test. Also worth noting is that filing for a patent is no guarantee that the invention will ever make it into a real product.

It’s likely that the filtering system will be a part of the suite of tests that Google runs on new apps. For instance, Google currently checks for malware and for illicit mentions of other applications in the description, and probably runs other undisclosed tests as well.

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