US tech giants face a possible backlash after two Russian app developers created products in an attempt to circumvent sanctions against the country by publishing inside Russian app stores without being located in the country.
Apple has removed the apps from Apple’s app store in Russia, while Google’s recent move comes after facing pressure from the government. Both companies maintain that they remove apps if they find evidence of illegal activity.
Both apps were developed by companies owned by Dmitry Grishin, whose empire includes a host of popular internet companies including Mail.ru and popular messaging apps that reach 1bn users worldwide.
Apple takes action on Russian apps Read more
In August 2015, the UK government ordered Apple to remove the popular Russia-based messaging app Telegram from its App Store. The company only relented in July after a public outcry.
That same month, Apple removed all Russian apps from its app store after one developer presented a YouTube video featuring an iPhone that opened a Russian-language version of WhatsApp, an app that only works in English. The Apple order was put on hold after the App Store website was bombarded with complaints.
Apple is now removing apps that use tools known as “mirroring” to skirt its policies. A statement provided to the New York Times said: “When we find that an app violates our developer guidelines, we issue it a warning and require it to be submitted for review or removed from the App Store.”
The two apps being accused of mirroring were Pushwell Coin and Heavenbit, both in Chinese.
Pushwell Coin claims to be a new cryptocurrency, but it also uses the app store to install the BackWitCloud app into a Chinese user’s Chinese app store. BackWitCloud then installs the Tuxcess Android app on the victim’s Android phone, allowing them to browse Russian-language App Store alternatives with limited restrictions.
In a May 2017 interview, Pushwell Coin’s inventor told the New York Times that it was merely an experiment. “We did this because we didn’t want our ideas to get killed. But this is just an experiment,” Yevgeny Charous told the paper.
Godbit Ltd, the company behind Heavenbit, uses the app store to trick users into downloading an app called SixandThree. Its website also says it is a new cryptocurrency called Absolutonmo. Once installed on a Chinese user’s phone, the Absolutonmo app is able to rewind a user’s browser back to Russian internet search portal uk.ru.
In a statement, Google said: “All applications that violate our developer policies are removed from Google Play.”
Both apps – Heavenly GodBit and Heavenly Godcoin – are still available on Android.
The companies declined to comment on whether they expected to face legal action from Google or Apple.