Too many permissions for simple apps

Yesterday I was badly surprised when Reto Meier added a post pointing to an Android game activated by the voice; that sounded fun (although it's clear that it can't be played in too many places), but I wanted to check it out.

The bad surprise came when the market showed me the required permissions for the App:

  • Record sound (obviously, it needs as that's the differential point)
  • Full internet access (ok, some ads as it's a free app)
  • Read and write the contents of the SD card. This isn't too nice, but some apps and games have extra downloads to keep the app itself smaller and they download the data to the SD. We have to accept it until Android provides a better option (check below for my proposal)
  • Read identity and state of my phone. No, this isn't OK. An app doesn't really require to know anything about my phone. Usually this is enough for me to not install an app.
  • Read SMS. What??? Read my SMS? for a game?, are you joking?. So this app requires full internet access, read all the content of my SD card as well as my identity and my SMS? They can ask for my bank account at the same time.
  • Send SMS. Ok, this is enough. What's the difference between this game and those trojans that have been found claiming to be legit Android Apps? How can a user be able to find out that the developer is really a good person and it's requiring those permissions really based on real requirements instead of being used to send premium SMSs and hide them as those trojans do?

Whenever such application with those huge permissions is mentioned by someone that it's otherwise respected, we can expect that people will download it, and by doing it people will be used to accept that apps might require extra permissions. This will lead to "permission blindness" just like people is now blind to the Ads that appear in some webs, people will get used very soon to the fact that any app might want to read your SMS, your contacts and anything else.

So this will destroy any effectivenes of the permissions system, the typical statement "be careful about what you install" and "it's easy to spot a trojan due to its permissions" will be void. Sum it with the lack of review system in the Android Market and you get a big problem just waiting to happen.

According to some comments in that post, the developers answered in Twitter claiming that the SMS is to upgrade the app to a paid version. So... what's wrong with the Android Market? why don't you offer the full version there instead of using SMSs? Does premium SMS work across countries? how much it's gonna cost some random user in Spain like me a premium SMS sent to the USA? If it's just an internal switch in the app, why isn't this done using the existing internet connection? People pay it in your site and then the app is upgraded to full version. Hell, it can even be done showing the user an unlock code and without internet on the phone app itself!

The requirement to read/write the SD card could be fixed if Android had a better system for apps to store their own data:
Currently those apps create random folders anywhere on the SD card and they remain there after the app has been removed. If instead of getting full access to the SD card they had access to just a custom unique folder, then this could be much better:

  1. Any app can read/write to his own folder in the SD, ex. /Android/data/com.google.android.apps.maps/
  2. That folder is only accessed by that app (or other apps like file managers that really request full SD access), there's no need to state it in the permission list
  3. When the app is removed, the uninstaller also cleans up that folder, so that the app has been really uninstalled and nothing remains. If the user wanted to keep the data he can do a backup of the folder before performing the removal.
  4. In summary: the app itself doesn't really need to know the location of that folder, it just knows that it can safely read and write there, and due to that safety it doesn't require an extra permission at install time. Better for the developer, better for the users.

The Android system really needs an improvement in the way that permissions are granted, the user shouldn't have to worry because an app is requesting weird permissions, also, the Android Market should be much more careful and force a review of any app that requires permissions like send SMS, or perform a combination of read SD and get internet access. When an app just requires internet to show ads it's OK, but if that app is also able to read all the data in your SD card (photos, Titanium backups, etc...) then it should be reviewed to provide a warranty that it's a good app and not something evil.

Enough of bad comments, do you want to know a nice game? (no, this post isn't sponsored and I'm not related to the developer)
Test Trap!, it ask for all the permissions that you can expect from a nice game: none, and it can keep you playing it for a while trying to beat yourself.



Gheter said...

I saw the same post on my stream. I agree with you on the permissions but I would point out that some ad serving companies require access to phone state and sometimes even Boot completed actions. Airpush, for one, does so.

Alfonso said...

But don't you think that allowing those ad companies have so much info is a problem?

Yes, I know that's the way that it works now with some of them, but that doesn't mean that we the users must agree with them

I can accept that they send me some ads hoping that I might buy something (although I doubt it), but they don't have any right to get my personal info.

I know that recently there was some discussion at Mozilla because their Android browser doesn't send specific info about the phone model and how some companies are used to that, but I'm glad that their stance was that the user privacy was much more important that the desires of advertisers. That's one of the reasons why I've been a Mozilla supporter for so long.