By Jonathon Keane
Downloading apps has never been more convenient, but every app requires a certain number of permissions to access data on your smartphone. Much like the user agreements before signing up to a new website, people generally don’t pay too much attention to app permissions.
This can leave a user unknowingly putting their personal data at risk. Last summer, Facebook’s Messenger app came under fire for introducing a slew of very detailed app permissions such as location, accessing photos, and phone contacts.
Android apps are often some of the worst offenders with some apps asking for hundreds of permissions. One study 2012 found that Android apps ask for 33% more permissions than they actually need. Since then there have been several other examples such as Angry Birds logging your location data while seemingly harmless flashlight apps were revealed to be harvesting swathes of unnecessary data like location, accessing call logs, and even deleting other apps.
Some apps can scoop up your data and even sell them on to third parties, usually advertising firms. There are a couple of app permissions you need to be particularly wary of if you want to protect your data as well as your wallet.
In-app payments are one of the most contentious app permissions there is. Free apps, especially games, often turn to in-app purchases to make money. In the past there have been several cases where children used their parent’s phones to play games and made costly purchases. You can restrict your in-app purchases in your device’s settings or enable a PIN for any purchases.
There have been many Android apps too that may seek access to your phone calls and SMS messages and even send messages without you knowing. Keep an eye out for permissions along these lines: “Allows the app to send SMS messages. This may result in unexpected charges.”
Google Play Store
The Google Play Store in particular has been dogged by security concerns. The open nature of the store means most people can submit apps and often they are accepted. Google is generally quite secretive about the vetting process but apps aren’t checked individually by a person so some dubious software, and outright malware, can make it in.
Apple’s App Store is arguably much better and safer for users who have a little more control over what an app has permission to access and Google has taken notice of this.
At its I/O developer’s conference last week, Google revealed a revamped version of its app permissions for Android M, the latest version of the mobile OS.
Previously users could only view and decide on all of the permissions when they downloaded the app. Under these new settings, users can choose their permissions for each feature on the app as they use it, much like the system in iOS.
Second, Google also announced new family settings where parents have greater control over what apps can be access on their child’s phone. This includes restrictions on in-app purchases and streaming video content.
Ideally any smartphone user would have a mobile anti-virus installed, but there are some anti-virus apps that will regularly scan your device and analyse what apps are in use. You’ll receive updates with details on the apps you have installed and what permissions they’ve taken. You can stay on top of what’s on your phone and delete what you may feel uncomfortable with.
Another method of staying safe is using PrivacyGrade.org, a site launched last year by privacy researchers that ranks and grades apps on their privacy and security integrity.