The Strange Case of App Ops and Android Privacy

by Bob Schwartz

Last week Google removed a privacy capability from the latest version of its Android operating system. Odd because Android is all about onward and upward. Always more and not less.

Not so odd in its being under-reported and relatively unnoticed. The capability was something that’s been called App Ops—application options—that allows users to pick and choose which permissions an application can have. It would, for example, allow you to tell that flashlight app that it could use your smartphone lights but it could not read your list of contacts (which, infamously, one flashlight app has done). App Ops was included last fall in Android 4.3, but was never officially documented and was unreachable and unusable by the non-tech oriented.

But Android fans never sleep, and so dozens of apps were developed just so that a user could access the capability and tell even the most popular apps to quit snooping around places they didn’t need to be to be functional. Then, with the release of Android 4.2.2, App Ops was gone.

You may be one of the many millions who don’t care, because all you want is for your Android device to run trouble-free, and even because you have decided that privacy is something you give to get—in this case to get some pretty awesome apps for free.

In case you do care, here’s a brief on how we got here.

Android is the most popular mobile operating system in the world, with iOS substantial for Planet Apple, and Windows insurgent. Development of Android apps has been like nothing in digital history. Anyone can do it and has, to varying degrees of technical and user success. Just as importantly, with Android apps, free is the norm. To make free work commercially, developers to varying degrees scrape your device for personal data that can be synthesized and used for marketing purposes. Permission to gather the information is requested, but on an all or nothing basis: either you agree to all the requests or you use some other app.

That is, of course, why App Ops is so radical and dangerous. Many of the permissions don’t in any way affect the functionality of any given app. They are there for collateral purposes. If users could just cut off the flow of personal information, certain commercial support would be hindered, if not collapse entirely. To put it another way, users might have to start paying for apps that they take for granted are free. Or they might look for similar apps that are actually free.

Google now says that App Ops was never intended for users. It was built for developers working on Android 4.3 as a testing and experimental capability. It was supposed to be removed before the new version was released. It was, in short, an accident.

Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation are understandably upset. They have been pushing for just such a capability, and now that it appeared and just as quickly disappeared, it is defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Even if the victory was accidental.

All is not lost, not entirely, not for everybody, not for the moment. Because of the tortuous path to Android upgrade, some of the most popular smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 just got their update to 4.3, which is App Ops capable. If you are in that cohort, please check out one of the many simple enablers on Google Play, such as Permission Manager – App Ops.

For those who like Android and privacy esoterica, here’s one last point. App Ops doesn’t just allow you to turn permissions on and off. It also allows you to see how often and how recently the app has used that permission. In that respect, it is actually kind of heartening. The assumption has been that with these permissions in hand, developers have been using our devices as open books. It turns out that a number of well-known apps have never used most of the permissions they’ve requested and been granted. This is no reason for a party, and if anything proves the contention that they didn’t need those permissions in the first place. But it does provide the tiniest bit of comfort knowing that your personal life is a little less compromised than it might have been.