Shady Netflix, blocking ads, and other mischief in the Android App Underground
On our laptops, we’re used to being able to install anything we want. We download an app from the web, double-click that bad boy, and install it. In recent years, Microsoft or Apple may warn us against installing something outside of their stores, but they won’t stop us.
On our phones, however, there’s a bigger difference between Apple’s offering and the competition. On Android, with a flick of a setting, users can install any app out there - this is called sideloading an app. On an iPhone, it’s possible, but beyond the reach of almost all users. (Watch this space for an article about sideloading options for iPhone users.)
Because of this relative freedom, apps are available for Android outside the official Play Store channel which are, shall we say, a little naughty. But if you think you should be able to completely control a device that cost you $1000, unapproved software is part of the deal.
What mischief do you have for us, Android?
There are lots of unapproved apps out there, but because there isn’t an official store, they’re hard to find and keep track of. They can usually be found in the forums of the enthusiast website XDA-Developers, which recently launched a full-blown app store on web and mobile. There are other alternative stores available, like F-Droid which is a catalog of open source apps, and Aptoide which has apps the Play Store won’t allow. These stores can be themselves sideloaded on Android devices.
Here are some of the bigger and better underground apps. I won’t link directly to the really illegal ones, but be careful not to download a fake version of these apps as you might get a shady one with malware.
Apps for watching movies and TV shows
Think Netflix, but with pretty much every movie and TV show anyone would ever want. Yep, pretty highly illegal. There’s a lot of these apps too. Videos get pirated than hosted somewhere, and these apps trawl the web finding them, or use BitTorrent to fetch videos then stream them to you, all for free. They don’t work as well as Netflix; sometimes you’ll have buffering issues, or a video won’t cast to your TV, or it won’t play at all, not-that-I-would-know-though.
There’s a ton of these apps, but some of the bigger ones are CyberFlix, Cinema HD, and TeaTV. Do NOT download an obvious link from a Google search, as it’s probably malware. Try xda-developers instead or ask somewhere like Reddit. And on your head be it if you use one and get caught. An app like this will tend to get taken down after a while, but two more will usually emerge to take its place. Such is the cycle of piracy.
Is it wrong to use these apps? Well, if you can afford Netflix just do that. If you really can’t or times are tough, maybe it’s ok to chill for free.
Some ad blockers live in the Play Store because Google is ok with them to an extent - like if they’re a browser that only blocks ads on web pages. That said, there seems to be an app in the Play Store that claims to block video ads, but asks for a monthly fee. Which is ridiculous.
Outside the Play Store, we have the open source and well-known DNS-66, which you can use to block video ads and banner ads inside other apps, safely and cleanly. It works by running a VPN on your phone which doesn’t allow downloads from advertising sites, so it saves your data usage and makes browsing faster too. There’s also Blokada which comes pre-configured, but is otherwise about the same, although I find it takes a long time to start up. It also might not block all video ads.
Download YouTube videos, or watch without ads
Ever added a video to your Watch Later playlist in YouTube, only to come back and find it’s been made private or deleted? There could have been something really valuable to you in that video. What’s worse, the video just appears as “Private video”, so you don’t know what it was that you’ve lost forever, and there’s no way to find it again.
Another one to look out for is creatively called YouTube Downloader for Android. The UI is a bit clunky, but it does what it’s supposed to, and even converts videos and combines audio when required, and converts videos to MP3. There are other apps out there that download videos, from YouTube and from a wealth of other sites like Twitter and Instagram, so have a look around.
Stay smart if you’re installing apps from outside the official app store. Google and Apple keep an eye on apps that enter their stores, so you’re safer - but not completely safe - if you stick to those apps. That said, Google’s also been scanning sideloaded apps since 2012 for malware, but their scanner is far from perfect.
Apps have been known to mine cryptocurrencies on the sly, and that happens in the Play Store too. So try to stick to apps with a good reputation, or apps that are open-source. But be aware that even if an app is open source, the app you end up downloading might have had shady code snuck in when it was built. F-Droid has a clever solution where they provide packaged apps which are cryptographically verified to be built from source code anyone can see.
The tip of the iceberg
There are a lot more apps out there, with a lot of functionality that Google wouldn’t be happy about. Thankfully, their stranglehold on your phone is slightly more relaxed than Apple’s, so you’re slightly more free to take a risk on some eyebrow-raising apps.
Just be careful if you do, and cherish your freedom - no one knows how long it will last.