Google I/O 2015 was a very important day for privacy researchers. For the first time Google acknowledged a need for better privacy control. Researchers and Developers working with Android for sometime probably know that their was a feature called AppOps. This feature was introduced in Android 4.3 and later removed in 4.4.2. The reasons stated for its inclusion and removal have been discussed extensively. However, the only conclusion we could clearly draw from all the discussion was that there was a demand for such a feature. Our friends from over at Apple have repeatedly mentioned how Apple has always cared for User Privacy more than Google. As a result of this, it was only a matter of time and a pleasant development for Android enthusiasts to see this new feature in Android.
We installed the new Android M OS on a Nexus 5. The first thing we wanted to see was the permissions feature. Listed below are our impressions of what we thought of this new feature from a Privacy researcher’s perspective.
The feature is not easy to find
We had to weed through the settings of our phone and we were not able to find it straightaway. There was no menu item for Privacy. How do you access it then? You will have to click on the phone’s setting and then click on “Apps” and then select a particular app whose permission access you wish to control. Following this you will have to click on “Permissions” for that app. At this point you get the menu which allows you to toggle the permissions.
The Permission control is essentially useless till your Apps upgrade
Now, Google stated yesterday that the behavior of apps which do not upgrade to the new API version will remain the same as before. Therefore, even with this feature present you cannot actually stop an app from accessing the restricted data. What you do see is a warning dialog stating the obvious.
Not all permissions shows up in the list
The granularity of permissions that will be available in this new feature is still uncertain. If you check the Facebook permission list in the Google Play Store, you will see that it requests a lot of permissions.
But when you check out the permission control menu, you will see just a few of these permissions here.
We can assume that Google is grouping the permissions into logical groups. However, that means that the primary issue that a lot of researchers have raised about granular access control is still not being addressed by Google. We have been doing research with fine-grained permission control for sometime now. In our work, we have created a system that is capable of controlling the access to data on a mobile device based on the context of the user. Such an intelligent system would not only know what data to give access to but also when to do so. That goal still remains to be completely realized.
Obviously, we must not forget that Something is always better than nothing! Google is taking steps to improve the means by which it protects a user’s privacy and provides security. It is an iterative process and it’s still far from the goal. It is getting closer to that goal though.