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More Than 25% of Android Apps Know Too Much About You 277

Posted by Soulskill
from the but-they-always-forget-my-birthday dept.
CowboyRobot writes "A pair of reports by Juniper and Bit9 confirm the suspicion that many apps are spying on users. '26 percent of Android apps in Google Play can access personal data, such as contacts and email, and 42 percent, GPS location data... 31 percent of the apps access phone calls or phone numbers, and 9 percent employ permissions that could cost the user money, such as incurring premium SMS text message charges... nearly 7 percent of free apps can access address books, 2.6 percent, can send text messages without the user knowing, 6.4 percent can make calls, and 5.5 percent have access to the device's camera.' The main issue seems to be with poor development practices. Only in a minority of cases is there malicious intent. The Juniper report and the Bit9 report are both available online."
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More Than 25% of Android Apps Know Too Much About You

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  • If only! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Joehonkie (665142) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:14AM (#41852603) Homepage
    If only there were some way for me to tell which permissions an app will use when I install it!
    • Re:If only! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:16AM (#41852629)

      If only there were some way to know what permissions the app really needed to do its job!

      If only you didn't have to slog through 15 different flashlight apps before you find one that doesn't want access to your address book!

      • Re:If only! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by h4rr4r (612664) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:25AM (#41852731)

        You don't. Torch, Done.

        What Google should do is let me search for apps by permissions. I also wish they would let me never see a freemium app again. I have zero interest in them.

        • Re:If only! (Score:5, Interesting)

          by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:40AM (#41852887)

          permissions are vague. I can't know what the hell they plan to do!

          what I'd want is a watcher that gives pop-ups or some notification and STOPS THE APP until I let it thru. very very fine grained permit/deny and also a lot of all info that is captured and sent.

          until the apps are more transparent (they are anything but, now!) I refuse to run most android 'store' apps or anything else.

          the whole market is fucked up; the protection model is bullshit and there's no audit ability for users to feel confident that this or that app is not doing funny shit behind the owner's back.

          the permissions model is quite stupid by design. another google design failure, designed by engineers and not designed FOR users who are non-tech and simply want to know what the app is DOING.

          there also isn't a standard default firewall on unrooted android. again, I have no trust in android when I have to go around it and root it just to have a firewall and user filters or ACL's.

          the whole model needs a serious rewrite. not saying the apple model is any better, but android is quite immature in how it DOES NOT protect the user or give them any real info to go on. the only thing you have now is 'trust us' and, well, I just don't!

          vista annoyed users with the popups but I do think that some level of that is needed, here. WHEN an app tries to do things that fit some trigger, show me! show me what and when and where. keep logs of it. let me query the logs and study how good or bad this app is. let me run it in 'hobble mode' so that it, by default, does not get access to anything. let me trust it over time and relax restrictions as it gets my trust.

          the whole model is all wrong. sorry, but it seems no one was thinking of the users, here. and users are getting screwed by not having true visibility into the (often) evils that 'flashlight apps' do.

          • by h4rr4r (612664)

            How are they vague? They have plain english descriptions.
            Torch:
            Hardware controls: Take pictures and videos
            System Tools: prevent phone from sleeping.

            If you can't read plain english you don't need a smartphone. A user who can't do that will just OK anything it ever asks for watcher or not.

            Why do you need a firewall if you don't leave ports open willy nilly?

          • by CastrTroy (595695)
            I would like the ability to send fake data to apps. I should be able to configure apps so that when they ask for my contact data, they get a fake list. The apps think they are working, but they aren't. Same goes with access to the SD Card. They think they are getting direct access to the SD card, but really they would just get their own little dedicated subfolder. Everything that they have access to should be able to be swapped out with a fake version. This combined with a network firewall (possibly allowi
            • by h4rr4r (612664)

              That ability already exists with apps and in some roms.

              Adding it to AOSP would be neat though.

      • Given Android will now (I think - I've got an iPhone so can't be sure.... ssshhhhhhhh! Don't tell anyone) tell you what permissions the app will access, why isn't there the ability to just configure android to refuse to pass those details on to the app at the OS level?

        I know I'm going into dangerous territory here by praising Facebook for their security (ssshhhhh!!!!) but when you add 'apps' to facebook, it will tell you what it is wanting to access but facebook gives you the ability to deny access to th
        • by Bogtha (906264)

          Given Android will now (I think - I've got an iPhone so can't be sure.... ssshhhhhhhh! Don't tell anyone) tell you what permissions the app will access

          The very first release of Android did this, it's been in Android all along.

          why isn't there the ability to just configure android to refuse to pass those details on to the app at the OS level?

          Probably because it's simpler all round to just assume that if the app is running it has permission. Fewer moving parts. It's not in the user's best interests

        • Given Android will now ... tell you what permissions the app will access, why isn't there the ability to just configure android to refuse to pass those details on to the app at the OS level?

          This is a feature of Cyanogenmod. You can revoke permissions in a granular fashion; There's no knowing how it will affect the app's performance, and you do so at your own risk obviously. For all others, there's LBE Privacy Guard which will prevent access to contacts, messages, location, and data services on a per-app basis.

      • If only you were able to selectively revoke permissions you thought an application didn't need!

        I mean, when I install an app, I'd like to be shown a list of permissions it wants, just as I am now, and then I'd like to go through that list and toggle some off... and if the app can still run without those things, it should install anyway (and not do the things I've told it not to do). Surely that ain't rocket science!

        • Denying permissions to applications that expect those permissions would cause the applications to force close when Android throws a SecurityException. How do you think force closing like this would improve the user experience?
          • by h4rr4r (612664)

            Sounds like shitty application design.

            Try and catch a really neat you should check them out. How would your crap application handle a device that totally lacks whatever you are trying to access?

            • How would your crap application handle a device that totally lacks whatever you are trying to access?

              It would rely on having been blocked from installing. Android apps can state that a permission is required or that a permission is required unless the hardware doesn't support it. If a permission is required and the hardware doesn't support it, Android blocks it from installing. I have seen this with newer versions of the ZXing Barcode Scanner on my Archos 43 Internet Tablet, which requires the "landscape" permission that Archos mistakenly left out of its AOSP build. The same happened when I tried to instal

      • by rossdee (243626)

        WTF is the point of a "Flashlight App' anyway?
        Do you really need a program to turn your $250 tablet into a $10 flashlight?

        Mote - I am a flashlight-o-holic since I work nights

        • by h4rr4r (612664)

          Why would I want to carry two devices?
          My GN is always in my pocket, why not use it as a flashlight?

    • Re:If only! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by rvw (755107) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:23AM (#41852705)

      If only there were some way for me to tell which permissions an app will use when I install it!

      I've created one Hello World app, just to see how it works. I've followed directions, didn't do anything to snoop around. The result is that it needs Phone ID somehow. I suspect that many app programmers do nothing to snoop around, but automatically request more permissions than actually needed, probably because the programming IDE does this automatically.

      • I've created one Hello World app, just to see how it works. I've followed directions, didn't do anything to snoop around. The result is that it needs Phone ID somehow. I suspect that many app programmers do nothing to snoop around, but automatically request more permissions than actually needed, probably because the programming IDE does this automatically.

        Can you not just use the ANDROID_ID which doesn't require any permissions?

        • by rvw (755107)

          I've created one Hello World app, just to see how it works. I've followed directions, didn't do anything to snoop around. The result is that it needs Phone ID somehow. I suspect that many app programmers do nothing to snoop around, but automatically request more permissions than actually needed, probably because the programming IDE does this automatically.

          Can you not just use the ANDROID_ID which doesn't require any permissions?

          Yes! Well to be honest I wouldn't know - but I suppose you do. This app does nothing but display the text Hello World. So it doesn't need any permissions. Still the app requests them. I'm an unexperienced android app developer, don't know this alternative, and I suppose I'm not the only one.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Syphonius (11602)

        Then you may have done it wrong (or whatever example you followed was wrong). The default IDE (Eclipse with the ADK plugin) does not generate permissions into the manifest. They all go in manually. If your Hello, World required extra permissions then they were most likely added by accident or you are using some uncommon IDE/plugin.

      • by blogan (84463)

        What was the target SDK level? Older levels were always given access to phone ID, but in newer levels, it had to be specifically requested. For backwards compatibility, older apps targeted to the older levels would request that permission. Solution would be to have a newer target level, but not necessarily change the minSDK level.

    • Okay, so if I'm looking for an app, how do I search Google Play saying I want to find one that doesn't require the permission to access my address book or the contents of my SD card? You get shown the permissions right before you download an app, but you don't ever get told why an application needs these permissions.
      • Re:If only! (Score:5, Informative)

        by h4rr4r (612664) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:27AM (#41852747)

        Actually a lot of decent apps have a why in the description of the app.

        If it does not seem like it should need it and they fail to explain it don't install it.

        Still better than on the PC, where any application can read any of your files.

        • Still better than on the PC, where any application can read any of your files.

          Maybe you should blame it on your OS.

          • by h4rr4r (612664)

            What OS are you using?

            Short of using SELINUX or apparmor, which I do use this is the normal behavior. Windows will allow any application running as a user to access that users data, OSX is the same.

      • You get shown the permissions right before you download an app, but you don't ever get told why an application needs these permissions.

        Ideally an application's description would contain something like a privacy policy that describes what it does with each permission. For example:

        • Internet: Used to synchronize data with other devices on which you have installed this application.
        • Internet: Used to submit high scores.
        • Internet: Used to complete installation over Wi-Fi (500 MB download).
        • Internet: Used to download messages from sponsors that keep this application free.
        • SD card: Used to export and import your data for use with offline PC applicati
    • by Scutter (18425)

      If only there were some way to selectively allow or deny permissions to an app instead of the all-or-nothing approach currently employed.

      • If only there were some way to selectively allow or deny permissions to an app instead of the all-or-nothing approach currently employed on a non-rooted phone.

        FTFY. If your phone is rooted, use Permissions.

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      If only there were some way for me to tell which permissions an app will use when I install it!

      You do realize that Android has been making it progressively harder? In ICS, the big fat "INSTALL" button is located at the top (instead of the bottom) so users can quickly tap Install, Install and never see the permission list.

      Plus, a lot of permissions get grouped under "Other permissions" so you have to tap that in order tlo see the full permission list, so at best you see a few major permissions, and the rest

  • Privacy apps - LBE (Score:5, Informative)

    by rvw (755107) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:15AM (#41852613)

    I've installed LBE Privacy control and it blocks unnecessary permissions for many apps. Why does a keyboard need internet access? The only thing I'm concerned about... What does LBE know, and what does it share?

    • by blogan (84463)

      The keyboard might be pulling down certain language dictionaries,hence the need for Internet access.

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        The developer should say that in the description then.

        You should still be suspicious since he could just lie. If it needs new dictionaries it should get them via an application update.

    • Why does a keyboard need internet access?

      An input method might need Internet access to download autocorrection dictionaries for multiple languages, or to download messages from sponsors to keep the application free for you to use.

  • I have an S3 and downloaded a few apps. Before installation you're told what permissions the app wants on your device.

    E.g. the Facebook app seems to want every permission it can get it's grubby hands on thus I've chosen not to install it.

    Unless app developers are using workarounds.

    Funnily enough it is no surprise that many of the "free" apps seem to want the most permissions.

    • by rvw (755107)

      I have an S3 and downloaded a few apps. Before installation you're told what permissions the app wants on your device.

      E.g. the Facebook app seems to want every permission it can get it's grubby hands on thus I've chosen not to install it.

      Unless app developers are using workarounds.

      Funnily enough it is no surprise that many of the "free" apps seem to want the most permissions.

      For facebook I use Firefox. Works great although maybe a bit less fluent, and no worries that it will upload my contact list.

    • Funnily enough it is no surprise that many of the "free" apps seem to want the most permissions.

      I never was surprised by that because ad-financed apps need the most dangerous permission: unlimited internet access.

  • by photonic (584757) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:16AM (#41852633)
    They should add more fine-grained permission, so that for example an application would only require 'access to add-server' instead of full network access. And please make some clear policy that gets enforced, i.e. applications that do ask more permissions than they need get banned until the problem is fixed.
  • by e065c8515d206cb0e190 (1785896) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:27AM (#41852753)

    We need a website listing apps and what persmissions they require vs use.

    Developers will start paying attention when their apps are publicly shamed.

  • Lets Mention Apple (Score:5, Informative)

    by tuppe666 (904118) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:27AM (#41852755)

    Lets have a little balance

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/15/iphone-privacy-app-path-facebook-twitter-apple_n_1279497.html?ref=mostpopular [huffingtonpost.com]

    Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram all send email addresses and phone numbers to their local servers.

    The whole thing blew up and ended up with US congressmen sending letters to Tim Cook. This was feburary this year

    "This incident raises questions about whether Apple’s iOS app developer policies and practices may fall short when it comes to protecting the information of iPhone users and their contacts."

    Butterfield and Waxman then quote parts of Apple’s iOS developer website which states that Apple provides a comprehensive collection of tools and frameworks for storing, accessing and sharing data. It is then questioned whether Apple requires apps to request user permission before transmitting data about a user."

    • by Bogtha (906264) on Friday November 02, 2012 @11:25AM (#41853459)

      Lets have a little balance

      Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram all send email addresses and phone numbers to their local servers.

      All of these companies have both official iOS apps and official Android apps, and the ones I've used on Android have definitely accessed my contacts. In fact, Facebook made headlines by fucking up the email addresses in the address books of Android users recently.

      But yes, let's have a little balance by directing the blame for the actions of these particular companies solely at Apple.

  • I wish I could use "optional" permissions. If the user doesn't want to give me access to something, that's fine. But if you want to integrate a whiz-bang feature that requires SMS, you either scare off people or have to make a separate app.

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      Some ROMs allow users to disable certain permissions.

      I would love to see that in AOSP. If an app needs advertising to survive and the user blocks networking it can check for that and just refuse to run until the user enables it. That is the best of both worlds, you can get the permissions you need and I can decide if you really need them.

  • Yeah (Score:4, Interesting)

    by errandum (2014454) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:36AM (#41852835)

    That study is irrelevant. Most of those apps don't know that because they need to, but because they are free and the averts do.

    Do the same study on payed apps. For example, GPS location access is not present on any of the games I bought so far.

  • by Jartan (219704) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:43AM (#41852927)

    The way things are setup on stock android is a nightmare. The supposed "Walled Garden" doesn't even exist. Android doesn't have malware/viruses because "legit" apps can walk right in and do whatever they want. Want to steal all your users contacts and use them for spam? There's a built-in API for that.

    I was trying to download a widget for screen brightness and 99% of the free ones wanted internet access permissions. It was just absolutely atrocious.

    The only redeeming feature is how easy it is to root and fix.

    • by godrik (1287354)

      I know I will be criticized for that, but if you want one, you can write one! It is not hard to make a widget for android. Of course, there might already be an OSS app to do that. Look in the list of fdroid.

    • by Hatta (162192)

      Like usual, everything is better when it's open source [f-droid.org].

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      Or you could just not install any applications that ask for those permissions is that so hard?

      99% of the brightness widgets want internet access? Sounds like you just found a new winning idea. Make one that does not.

  • I really like the name that phk (of FreeBSD and Varnish fame) came up with for permissions required for apps like that: chernobyl bits.

    It has a really nice ominous and "this is wrong and you shouldn't do it" ring to it.

  • by Eric Coleman (833730) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:44AM (#41852933)
    That operating systems like iOS and Android even give someone the ability to see that certain permissions are required, and by the compliment, that there are permissions that are not required, is a step in a good direction. That granularity feature is absent in desktop applications--essentially all permissions are granted by default. For all I know pkunzip could have been keeping track of all those file_id.diz it encountered in order to build a profile of me, then dialing some BBS to upload the statistics to. That might seem implausible, but since there was no central authoritative repository to download pkunzip, it came from a BBS. That BBS could have replaced it with its own custom version for tracking.

    The larger point is that desktop programs could have been doing for years what people are worried about with tablet and phone applications.

    That said, it still creeps me out to see a solitaire game needing access to my address book. Maybe this is a case of "out of sight, out of mind."
    • by godrik (1287354)

      I typically run untrusted applications on my machine under a different user account (firefox is one of them) which can not access anything in from my "real" user account. It is easy to set up!

      • But how easy is it, under operating systems that come on home PCs sold in retail stores, to set up applications under multiple user accounts to display windows on the same screen? Secure won't get used unless secure is easy.
  • by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:47AM (#41852987)

    one that is the smartphone (portable computer) and that will not have sms, cell service, address book, etc. rooted and firewalled and monitored.

    2nd phone would be a dumb phone that has no networking at all in it, simply just to send and receive voice calls.

    until there is a hard boundary (enforced, like a true barrier) between the soft apps and things that can cost you money (dialing out, stealing your contact list or local data), it just does not seem worth it to bundle all your stuff into one box.

    sure, its convenient but the trust model is not good enough.

    more and more, I just leave the smartphone home and use it as a wifi only device. at least I know that no sms BS is coming thru and no outgoing calls or wan connects could ever happen that would be costly or info-leaking.

    seriously, I'm demotivated to invest more of my personal info on a box that I have less and less control over.

    • by tepples (727027)
      That sounds like what I've chosen to do: carry an Android PDA and a prepaid dumbphone. I pay per year what a lot of smartphone customers pay per month.
  • DroidWall (Score:5, Informative)

    by brouiller (1934318) on Friday November 02, 2012 @10:52AM (#41853057)
    I root all of my Android devices and install the DroidWall app. It allows me to block network access to any app regardless of whether you give them permissions when installing. It's allowed me to download and use many apps that I would otherwise not have used because they wanted network access. It even lets you decide if you want to block the app on WiFi, cell data, or both.
  • by camcorder (759720) on Friday November 02, 2012 @11:24AM (#41853439)
    I'm afraid of big corps than small application developers for giving my data. If a small company, or an independent developer gets my data and use it without my permission and that harms me, I can sue that guy or small company and probably protect myself. A painful process but doable.

    On the other hand, I'm helpless against a big corp. I don't think there's any difference, since it includes profit and big corps can make more money out of it, in a way that big or small company can do with my personal data. Major problem is I can't fight with a big corp. I won't be able to have a energy and money to protect myself. They will do whatever they could do and I would be helpless.

    It's important to educate people about the importance of their privacy, so there will be a common uprising against the big corps in case they do evil. People ignorantly trust big companies. They will accept any kind of pop-up, or warning you'd put and install their applications. Though they have no idea what could they do and what kind of power they have with these data after they get a big harm. There must be thousands of families or lifes ruined because of irresponsibility of privacy protection of facebook or google. Even I personally know couple of people affected by those. But I haven't heard any case these companies paid for their wrongdoings.
  • by nomad-9 (1423689) on Friday November 02, 2012 @11:59AM (#41853847)
    The problem I see is that, in order for most apps to do something useful. For example, if you develop an SMS app, besides permissions on reading/writing/editing/sending messages, you will need access to contacts data, phone state and identity. Looks scary, but no SMS/MMS app can function properly without these.

    I've been developing a few Android apps and they almost all require some type of "unsafe" permissions to run...except one (a small puzzler game).

    Similarly, many apps need internet permissions. You can still look at what the app does, and try to determine if it really needs all the permissions it is asking. But since the problem lies in how do the app creators use those permissions beyond their declared "privacy policy", the only reasonable solution I see, is to install a monitoring app for network access, as suggested by some posters...provided the app itself isn't spying on you...
  • by Control-Z (321144) on Friday November 02, 2012 @02:42PM (#41856193)

    Many many apps want far too many permissions. But if you firewall the app it doesn't really matter what it knows, it won't be talking to the Internet.

    What I'd really like to see in Android is apps running in a sandbox and you being able to deny specific permissions for any app (with the caveat that may break the app, but so be it.)

    With iOS all the permissions and spying is behind the scenes so as not to confuse or concern the user.

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