Android & Granular Permissions

For Android-based phone owners, you are no doubt passingly familiar with the permission system that governs applications and what they can do. Every time you install an application, the device will ask you if you accept a list of permissions that it says are required for it to run. If you want the app, you must accept the permissions no matter what they are.

In theory, users can simply decline an app that requires excessive permissions and find an alternative. After all, there are over 1 million apps available right? Many won’t even read the permissions, while others may casually dismiss them because they are clearly stated, and any app in the Google Play store has to be legitimate!

The problem is that even the most simple and legitimate apps may request a variety of permissions that are not needed to make the program run:

Screenshot_2013-08-22-19-09-55   Screenshot_2013-08-23-19-12-04

A classic example of an application requesting permissions that aren’t required can be seen in the T-Mobile MyAccount app. The app is designed to give a user information about their T-Mobile cellular account, nothing else. This should take nothing more than permission to send and receive network data from their servers. Instead, the app has traditionally wanted extra permissions that are excessive. Worse, the latest version wants more, including “System tools” that give the app even more control over the phone. As T-Mobile is my provider and I don’t want to call them to find out account information, I have to accept their overly broad permissions. There is no alternative application in this case.

The second example is Avast Mobile Security & Antivirus that expects keys to the kingdome. There is a bit of irony that a security app wants enough permissions to completely own your phone, the same threat it claims to protect you from.

The Alternative

The obvious solution to this problem is setting it up so permissions are granular. This would allow a user to deny a specific permission while allowing others. If denying a specific permission causes the application to stop functioning, the user could enable it again if desired.

How hard is it to implement this for Google and Android? Trivial. This is readily apparent in that phones that have been jailbroken already allow it. Android users have requested this feature from Google via Ticket 3778. If you are an Android user and want to see this implemented, load the ticket and ‘star it’ (click the star on the upper left) to indicate you want it. If Google opts not to implement that one, there is a similar feature request (Ticket 6266) that would give a set of optional permissions an app wants, but are not required to function.

Until we get granular permissions, the concept of security in the context of applications will be a lost cause.

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