Google announced this week that it will soon require all apps on the Google Play store to undergo real-time scanning powered by machine learning before they can be downloaded and installed. The new policy, set to roll out in 2023, represents a major step up in Google’s efforts to strengthen Android security and combat malware risks.
The real-time scans will analyze apps as they are uploaded to Google Play to detect any malicious code or dangerous activity before the apps ever reach users’ devices. Google said its machine learning models have steadily improved at identifying security flaws and abuse techniques commonly used in malicious apps.
Currently, Google performs similar security checks on Play store apps but only after they get uploaded initially. Under the new system, no app will go live on the Play store until passing the real-time scans.
But Google will also apply the mandatory real-time scanning to apps obtained outside the Play store through sideloading. Android has always allowed sideloading from third-party app stores or websites, unlike Apple’s locked-down iOS ecosystem. Before sideloaded Android apps can be installed, Google will first scan them using its Play Integrity API.
The change represents Google’s latest attempt to make sideloading safer amid mounting malware concerns. With sideloading especially popular in regions without access to Google Play, the company aims to keep users secure without entirely restricting the open Android app marketplace.
Developers will need to embed the Play Integrity API and integrate the real-time scans into their app release processes. However, Google argued the enhanced protections are worth the extra step for builders producing legitimate apps with no ill intent.
Going forward, Google expects the new policies to catch the vast majority of harmful apps and reduce the malware making it onto Android devices. But the company acknowledged the protections are not foolproof given the “ever-changing” threats posed by bad actors. For users, the change means Android apps should pose fewer undisclosed risks and provide improved safety.