Cautious approach needed to promote competition in app stores

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shigeru Kitamura

The government has compiled a report on the need to promote competition in app marketplaces amid concerns about the influence of IT giants on such platforms. Shigeru Kitamura, former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat, outlines some of the challenges ahead from the perspective of economic security.


A report compiled by the government’s Digital Market Competition Council in April highlighted the fact that some smartphone apps are not competitive.

The report states that the developers of some operating systems only allow apps to be downloaded from their own app stores.

The report considered this problematic because it leads to restrictions on the entry of app developers, which might have to pay high fees to operating system firms to market products in their app stores.

For this reason, the report referred to the need to allow “side-loading,” whereby users are able to download apps from sources other than the app store designated by their operating systems.

While it is true that the promotion of competition contributes to economic revitalization, if unrestricted competition affects the security of the nation and the safety of citizens, it cannot be overlooked.

Careful consideration is needed regarding relaxation of side-loading rules as security vulnerabilities would increase if major operating system firms made it possible for users to download apps that have not been prescreened.

Meta Platforms Inc., formerly known as Facebook Inc, announced in October that it had detected more than 400 kinds of malicious software, or malware, that were designed to steal Facebook passwords and other information.

Even though the developers of operating systems are on the lookout for dangerous apps, they are not able to prevent the distribution of malware.

An example of malware includes FakeSpy, which has a user interface that resembles the digital application forms of Japan Post and other transportation service providers. When users install the software, their data is stolen. It is believed that a Chinese cybercrime group is behind the malware.

There is also malware that has been designed to look like a Health Canada coronavirus contact verification application. When victims download the malware from a fake government site, the data on their device is encrypted and a ransom is demanded in exchange for its removal. The ransomware can be used to target specific groups of people and their health data can be collected and exploited.

It is widely known that Uyghurs are monitored using spyware planted on their devices. “The China Freedom Trap” is spyware disguised as an ebook that, when downloaded, turns a user’s device into a sophisticated information-gathering terminal.

The spyware, which can operate a device’s camera and take screenshots, is said to be used extensively to monitor and track Uyghurs.

If the side-loading of apps is promoted solely from the perspective of competition without taking these realities into account, apps created in countries where security is a concern could end up on smartphones in Japan, and information could be extracted.

In the event of an emergency, the theft of data from key policymakers would pose a major threat to the nation, and lives could be at risk if the location information of dignitaries got into the wrong hands.

Cooperation between the government and the private sector is essential to minimize risk.

A huge number of applications are developed and sold in app marketplaces every day. It is not practical for the government to check all of them in advance. How operating system firms and the government can share the role will be a key issue.

It is hoped that a policy will be implemented that strikes a balance between competition and economic security, taking the severe security environment into full consideration.