Russia’s biggest Internet company has embedded code into apps found on mobile devices that allows information about millions of users to be sent to servers located in its home country.
The revelation relates to software created by Yandex that permits developers to create apps for devices running Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, systems that run the vast majority of the world’s smartphones.
Yandex collects user data harvested from mobile phones before sending the information to servers in Russia. Researchers have raised concerns the same “metadata” may then be accessed by the Kremlin and used to track people through their mobile phones.
Researcher Zach Edwards first made the discovery regarding Yandex’s code as part of an app auditing campaign for Me2B Alliance, a nonprofit. Four independent experts ran tests for the Financial Times to verify his work.
Yandex has acknowledged its software collects “device, network, and IP address” information that is stored “both in Finland and in Russia,” but it called this data “non-personalized and very limited.” It added: “Although theoretically possible, in practice it is extremely hard to identify users based solely on such information collected. Yandex definitely cannot do this.”
The revelations come at a critical time for Yandex, often referred to as “Russia’s Google,” which has long attempted to chart an independent path without falling foul of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for greater control of the Internet.
The company said it followed “a very strict” internal process when dealing with governments: “Any requests that fail to comply with all relevant procedural and legal requirements are turned down.”
But Cher Scarlett, formerly a principal software engineer in global security at Apple, said once user information was collected on Russian servers, Yandex could be obliged to submit it to the government under local laws. Other experts said that the metadata of the sort collected by Yandex could be used to identify users.
Ron Wyden, chair of the US Senate’s finance committee and one of the architects of US Internet regulation, heavily criticized Google and Apple for not doing enough to secure smartphones from the Yandex software, which has found its way onto 52,000 apps reaching hundreds of millions of consumers.
“These apps leech private, sensitive data from apps on your phone, threatening US national security and the privacy of Americans and other individuals around the world,” he said.
Yandex is considered a global tech giant and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and majority-owned by American funds. It is incorporated in Amsterdam, and founder Arkady Volozh lives in Israel. In 2019, the company reached an agreement with the Russian government, codifying a structure that ensures that Moscow can intervene on some issues such as foreign acquisitions without control of day-to-day operations.