Changing How App Stores Operate Could Have National Security Implications


As Congress considers how to increase competition for app stores run by Apple, Google and others, it also needs to consider potential cybersecurity threats.

As more aspects of our lives move online, we become increasingly dependent on the digital marketplaces that make them possible—the Apple App Store, Google Play Store, online retail platforms like Amazon, and social media sites like Facebook all impact what products and services are readily available to consumers. Such companies, referred to as ‘gatekeepers’ by European regulators, can effectively control what services or apps are available on your phone, computer, or social media platform. This power has led the European Union, through the proposed Digital Markets Act, and U.S. lawmakers, through proposed legislation like the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, to consider new requirements designed to increase competition in digital marketplaces, giving consumers and app creators choices, just as one might have for their car insurance.  

While increased competition may be a worthy goal, some of the proposed changes have potential cybersecurity and national security implications. Giving all app makers increased access to core device functions or allowing app installation from unknown or unverified sources creates risks to customers that lawmakers and regulators should consider when considering new rules designed to spur competition. Device makers and mobile platform providers have long been moving to enhance the security of our mobile devices, limiting the ability of apps to access data from other apps, track user locations, and defraud users—poorly crafted competition regulations would undermine these gains. 

Unlike choosing a car insurance provider, unfettered choice of apps or services on your device can create a myriad of privacy and security threats by virtue of the fact that one’s entire life may be on a mobile device. Health data, payment details, and an exacting history of your every step sits next to Candy Crush and a free calculator app your grandchild installed on your phone. Safeguards built into your device and app marketplaces help prevent apps from accessing and exploiting sensitive data, fraudulently charging users, or otherwise scamming them. By opening the “walled garden” to unregulated competition, regulators would inadvertently undermine such protections and increase risks to average users.

For example, installing an app from a random website could be free and easy, but said app could be filled with malware designed to steal your personal information, track you, or delete your family photos and charge a ransom to get them back. Similarly, forcing device makers to provide apps with unfettered access to sensitive device functions, like location data or root access, could allow apps to access sensitive information like location history, financial information, or health data that today is securely protected. 

Additionally, the vulnerabilities created by unregulated third-party app stores would create other challenges. A poorly run app store could fail to check offered apps for malware or allow a fake health insurance company app, tricking users into giving a criminal access to their device or sensitive personal data. The specifics of new regulations and requirements are critically important to ensuring that the offerings of any new, competing app store are safe. 

Current app stores are not perfect – operators do not catch all malware or fraudulent apps on the two dominant apps stores in the Western world, the App Store and Play Store. However, these services are far better run than various Chinese app stores where many apps are known to be include malware. This furthers the argument that core regulations are necessary to ensure apps are screened and reviewed to protect consumers. 

Finally, there are national security considerations that should be taken into account when opening devices up to unregulated third-party app stores. For example, more authoritarian regimes could use the proposed changes as justification for creating their own segmented app markets, forcing local users to install apps which grant authorities access to user devices, much as China already does. Russia has recently adopted a similar practice. Further, hostile countries could use poorly managed app stores in the U.S or Europe to conduct widespread espionage campaigns via malware-implanted apps, potentially dwarfing the size and scope of past app-based espionage campaigns

As lawmakers and regulators consider how to approach competition concerns in digital marketplaces, it would be wise to consider the secondary effects of the policies they seek to put into place. How will these regulations impact the security of end users? Will these new rules create further opportunities for malware and fraud? How do you weigh the security impacts of new policies with potential competition gains? These decisions are not easy, but security impacts need to be considered as new regulations are framed and discussed. Allowing users to easily install any app they find on Facebook, Google, or in their inbox from a “foreign prince” will hurt us all in the end. More choices do users little good if the price is giving hackers the ability to track users and empty their bank accounts.  

Gen. Michael Hayden is a retired four-star general who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. He is currently a principal at the Chertoff Group and a distinguished visiting professor at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.