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Cybrary's app was temporarily removed from the Google Play store. It was later returned to the store after a social media campaign called for its restoration. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Cybrary app temporarily booted from Google Play

Shortly before Thanksgiving, the team at Cybrary got some unwelcome news: Their free app had been booted from the Google Play store, where it had been getting hundreds of downloads per day.

Ryan Corey, co-founder of Cybrary. (Photo courtesy of Cybrary)

Ryan Corey, co-founder of Cybrary. (Photo courtesy of Cybrary)

At the beginning of the year, the Greenbelt-based Cybrary started offering free online courses in cybersecurity skills, such as systems administration, computer forensics and penetration testing — also known as ethical hacking — in which hackers test a computer system’s defenses to help make it more secure. It launched the app for Android devices in October.

But offering an app that teachers people to hack apparently wasn’t OK with Google, which explained in an email to the company that the app violated the Developer Distribution Agreement because it “provides/links to specific instructions used to circumvent software/hardware mechanics.”

Technically, says Cybrary co-founder Ryan Corey, “they were 100 percent right.”  The app does teach people about hacking, but that’s an important part of cybersecurity training, he said.

Google could not be reached for comment Monday.

At first, Google would only tell Corey that the company could resubmit a new, compliant version of the app for approval. But not teaching about penetration testing would defeat the purpose of the app.

So, on the day before Thanksgiving, Corey turned to Cybrary users for help, explaining the situation in a blog post and encouraging the community of more than 300,000 users to voice their support on social media — a request that yielded more than 5,000 tweets and re-tweets that day, Corey said.

“It was definitely a surprise,” he said of the outpouring of support, some of which decried Google’s decision as censorship.

That evening, Corey had another message from Google, this one saying that it would review the situation and asking for patience over the holiday weekend. On the following Monday, Google said it would allow the app back onto its store, provided that Cybrary tweaked its description of the program to emphasize its educational and ethical focus, Corey said, adding that the company was happy to comply.

So the app is back, but its popularity has taken a hit, Corey said. Before the ban, it was getting about 1,000 downloads per day; by mid-December, that number was down to about 300 per day, he said.

But the damage would have been worse if Cybrary didn’t have its established, online training platform, Corey said.

“If we were just an app-based startup, we would have been dead in the water,” Corey said.