By Greg Mannion and Adam Tuchman, CNN Tech Correspondents
There’s a common tech industry refrain: “Russia is running things.” There’s good reason to distrust those claims — but things are rarely that straightforward.
The Russian app Life360 was the latest to be banished from the Apple App Store over the weekend. It’s just the latest of a rash of apps pulled by Apple in recent weeks over alleged ties to Russian intelligence agencies.
In total, Apple has removed 23 apps from the App Store since March that it says have been in violation of its guidelines banning apps that provide access to any user data. The companies listed all deny any wrongdoing.
“This mischaracterization (by Apple) demonstrates how aggressively the Russians are trying to keep people off of social media so they can manipulate us,” Elizabeth de la Vega, CEO of the US-based Internet Association, said in a statement to CNN Tech. “It also demonstrates why we need bipartisan legislation to give Congress authority over how these companies collect and use the data of all Americans.”
Life360 would appear to be popular among Russian trolls. The app lets users stay in touch via phone, email and SMS without having to use social media or chat apps. Life360 said it has 5 million users in Russia.
The story of Life360 is a classic example of why US lawmakers and regulators need a new security framework in place.
Apple said it’s looking into Life360’s removal. “We are working closely with our industry partners to understand the nuances of each individual situation and evaluate whether it is consistent with the App Store guidelines,” Apple said in a statement.
The Russian government has an interest in Facebook, Google and Twitter, which have active business in the country. When election meddling is rampant, these tech companies can be easy targets for Russian propaganda and accounts that try to create discord among users.
An Apple spokesperson declined to comment on the issue.
Life360’s removal is a good example of why the government should have some oversight over apps like the ones Apple has removed.
But for tech companies, removing Russian apps is hard to do.
Tech companies rely on them for a huge portion of their business. Apple knows the apps make up a significant chunk of the App Store, but there are many countries around the world that do not have a strict censorship system. Apple, meanwhile, may find it hard to police all its stores.
That fact, coupled with political debate over the issue, makes it a tough topic for US companies to tackle.
Apple, along with Facebook and Google, has a stronger voice because of its size. Though foreign policy is typically kept out of Silicon Valley, tech companies are under intense political pressure to combat foreign influence.
In a March letter to the tech industry, the White House asked companies to avoid content that could pose a threat to national security or violate users’ privacy.
Apple may have limited oversight, but it does have some. It’s prohibited apps that allow the sharing of information with third parties, like hackers. It also has rules against any app that promises access to a user’s contacts. And it does not allow apps to display ads or sell users’ private information to advertisers.
These standards apply to all developers, regardless of nationality. Tech companies have more leeway on what kinds of information can be shared.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Life360 says it has never had information shared with advertisers or advertisers’ data sent to third parties. The app says it plans to continue to work with Apple, and that other countries may experience delays in approval as the company’s application is considered by Apple.
“Life360 is Apple-certified, and has an extremely rigorous review process designed to ensure that any information we receive cannot be used for harmful ends,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “While we expect our application will be approved, we are not yet able to release the product in other countries.”
Life360 was one of five apps that Apple pulled in April over alleged connections to Russian intelligence agencies. Apple also pulled apps from the sale in China, fearing they might “reproduce” information from social media networks.
The other three apps — several mapping apps, including MapQuest and TripAdvisor — have since been approved for sale in China.
In addition to providing a platform for foreign nation building, foreign intelligence agencies could also use social media in their efforts to influence the US election. In February, the Senate Intelligence Committee asked Facebook, Twitter and Google to testify about Russian interference during the 2016 election.
Still, most of the apps Apple has removed from the App Store have no political affiliation. All the app removal so far are user-facing apps that give access to users’ data.