Did anyone notice the permissions required to install the latest Facebook Android app update? Does Facebook really need to be able to connect or disconnect wi-fi to ensure proper functioning? Is it absolutely vital for Facebook to read your text messages, so you can watch the video of your best friend’s kid blowing out birthday candles?
The answer for these questions is probably no. Facebook does not need to turn off my wifi connection for any practical reason. So why are they doing it? Because they can.
Google’s basic approach for permissions is all-or-nothing. The user can either agree to grant all permissions to an app or choose not to install it. The requirement that apps have permission to everything, or an app won’t function, means users cannot control their privacy and security. This all-or-nothing approach also gives developers access to much more information than is necessary to develop and troubleshoot apps. Unscrupulous developers can easily take advantage of the vast permissions afforded by the Android OS.
The incorporation of App Ops in Android 4.3 was a huge step in the right direction – allowing users to control their privacy and give developers tools to limit their access to unneeded permissions. But, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, App Ops was removed in the Android 4.4.2 update. EFF reports, “Google told us that the feature had only ever been released by accident — that it was experimental, and that it could break some of the apps policed by it.” Sure, developers would need to finesse some details to make their apps function with more restrictions to permissions like App Ops, but it’s exactly what iOS developers do every day. EFF says, “[A] billion people’s data is being sucked through. Embarrassingly, it is also one that Apple managed to fix in iOS years ago.”
The all-or-nothing approach is just one part of the growing problem of unnecessary permissions. This last Facebook update requires a permission to “Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage”. What? Are you for real? Why would Facebook want to delete my data?
In that case, it is probably safe to say that Facebook does not really need or want to delete your files. Gil Megidish, TestFairy’s CTO, says, “It is silly to think Facebook is interested in deleting your SD card. One of the problems with Android permissions is they are too generic. Facebook commonly saves things to disk: caches profile images, photos and other media onto the SD card, but the permission is to read/write/delete from SD card. Is there a reason why Facebook should access other apps’ files on my SD card? Of course not, but that’s the permission level. A new option was added on API 19, allowing apps to write and delete their own local data without touching other apps’ files, and without requesting for any additional permissions. However, since less than 2% of the Android devices in the market run KitKat, it may take quite a while until this permission can be used by Android developers.”
The options to avoid the all-or-nothing challenge are limited to sophisticated Android users. Cnet reports, “CyanogenMod has implemented the exact App Ops feature that Google has just pulled.” There are, however, only “a few kinds of permissions such as contact list access and location list access” available with CyanogenMod. How-to-Geek has detailed directions for how to root your Android devices to operate App Ops within Android 4.4.2. You can also decide not to install the Android 4.4.2 update, yet some level of performance is sacrificed when updates are not installed. Normal Android users like your mom, neighbor, and uncle don’t have the skill set to make these changes. Most users just tap “YES” on the screen without understanding what they have updated and allowed. So, really, users don’t have a choice to protect their privacy and increase security. Only a small, highly skilled group of Android users can manipulate and manage their permissions – including some of the same developers who cry foul when required to allow permissions they access needlessly from their users.
All users deserve access to intuitive interface to manage and control their permissions. It’s time for Google to incorporate App Ops or a permissions feature in the OS, give users the chance to make decisions about their privacy, and offer developers tools they need to create apps with limited, necessary permissions that apply to all Android OS versions. The inclusion and quick removal of App Opps not only fuels conversations online discussing new permissions that feel creepy and invasive, but also it ignites distrust of the Android platform and the honest developers who work so hard to enhance the Android experience.
Where is the balance between Google having information it needs, developers having access to appropriate permissions to make quality apps, and users managing their privacy and security? We want to hear what you think. Share your thoughts with us via the comments below or email us to firstname.lastname@example.org