Google has the ability to remotely install apps on your phone without your explicit permission or even any notification. That’s the lesson from the confusing rollout of “MassNotify” in June 2021. But how does that work? And what about Apple’s iPhones?
On Android, MassNotify Arrived Automatically
The rollout of MassNotify is instructive. According to user reports, the MassNotify COVID-19 exposure notifications app was automatically installed on many Android smartphones around June 19, 2021. It appears as if the app was automatically installed on nearly every Android smartphone in the state of Massachusetts—and some Android phones beyond that.
“While I believe in what this app was meant to do, installing it without so much as a notification is extremely alarming,” wrote one user in a review of the app on the Google Play Store. The app doesn’t even have an app icon to let users know it’s installed.
Google told news website 9to5Google that the automatic install of the app was intentional and that the app wouldn’t do anything unless a user chooses to enable it.
This is particularly strange because no other state’s COVID-19 exposure app appears to work in this way. All the other apps are installed when you as a user chooses to enable the exposure notifications.
So, under what circumstances will Google remotely install an app on your phone? Did Google audit the app’s code for security problems before distributing it? Google isn’t really saying much—but it’s clear Google has the ability to remotely install Android apps.
You Can Remotely Install Apps, Too
While we’re not aware of Google ever remotely and silently installing an app in this way on Android, you can remotely install apps on your own Android phone.
Just head to the Google Play Store site, sign in with the same account you sign in with on Android, and you can use the “Install” button on an app’s store page to push it to your phone. The Play Store on your phone will begin downloading and installing the app you choose.
Unlike the situation around MassNotify, this isn’t silent. You do see a notification while the app is being installed.
Can Apple Remotely Install Apps on an iPhone?
We’re not aware of Apple ever remotely installing an iPhone app on anyone’s phones in this way. In fact, iPhones work a bit differently—to install an iPhone app, you have to go to the App Store on an iPhone and install the app. You can’t just sign into a web browser with your Apple ID and click a button to remotely install apps, as you can on Android.
Obviously, Operating System Updates Can Install Apps
Of course, operating system updates can install new apps on your device. You might install a new version of iOS for iPhones to find a new app, like the Apple Watch app or Apple News app. You might install a new Android update to find a new Google app on your phone.
However, we’re not aware of third-party apps not written by Google or Apple ever being installed in this way—especially not outside of normal operating system updates!
Both Companies Can Remotely Delete Apps
It’s worth noting that both Google and Apple can remotely delete apps from your phone if they want. This capability was created to protect devices from malware. If a terrible malicious app sneaks into Google Play or Apple’s App Store and is downloaded by millions of people, both companies want a kill switch they can flip to remotely disable the app.
While we know Apple can remotely disable apps installed on iPhones, we’re not aware of Apple ever using this capability as of June 2021
It’s Not Like Windows 10 PCs Are Much Different
Of course, it’s not like remote-installed app problems are restricted to smartphones. They happen on Windows 10, too. Design firm FTDI has repeatedly used Windows Update to push drivers that “brick” (disable) counterfeit hardware.
Apps like Candy Crush, Facebook, and FarmVille just keep popping up on Windows 10 PCs, whether you want them or not.
Windows 10 has been teaching PC users this lesson for years: It’s Microsoft’s PC—not yours—and Microsoft will install whatever it wants.
What Matters More: Technical Capabilities or Culture?
All this being said, even if a company like Apple can’t remotely install apps—and it seems like it’s possible Apple can’t remotely install apps on iPhones at the moment—that company could roll out a small operating system update that would give the company the capability to do this.
That operating system update would likely be installed automatically—after all, these automatic updates are good for security purposes.
Perhaps what matters more is a company’s culture. Rather than asking whether a company can remotely install apps on our devices, we should ask whether the company has a history of doing so.
Both Google and Microsoft have remotely installed third-party apps without user consent. Apple hasn’t done so—yet.
Then again, Apple did once add a U2 album to everyone’s iTunes libraries. Nobody’s perfect.