Researchers Release An App To Help With App Permissions

February 10, 2017 - Written By Daniel Golightly

Several researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have now created an Android application that helps users to understand and manage the permissions of other Android applications. Privacy Assistant – as the app has been named – will not be available to everybody, since it does require root-level system permissions to function. It also currently requires a specific version of Android, further narrowing the breadth of possible users. Privacy Assistant is the brainchild of Carnegie Mellon University researchers Jason Hong and Norman Sadeh and is part of a more broad study into app permissions which is being conducted by the university.

Every month, millions of new app installations occur. Of course, when installing new apps, users are keen to know what personal data is being accessed and how that is being used. Finding that out is not always easy because it is not always immediately obvious whether or not an application requires access to any of the various methods by which data is created and stored on devices. Moreover, it is not always obvious why some applications require access to certain things, like the camera, microphone, or location data. Some developers have taken steps to alleviate some of the confusion with explanations in their app’s descriptions, but the majority of developers have not. Additionally, for users to toggle application permissions manually a measure of patience and an inordinate amount of time are required. A user typically has to go through each application’s permissions individually and one application at a time. That’s where Privacy Assistant comes in. The application uses “machine learning” to assist users in determining which permissions are acceptable and which applications will be granted which permissions all in one place. The developers claim that unlike other applications, Privacy Assistant asks various initial questions of users in order to provide a more personalized experience. Similarly-focused apps often tend to offer more broad solutions across all users. Since the application is part of a research study, it should be noted that meta-data will likely be compiled based both on those answers and on general use of the application. Unfortunately, running a version of Android Lollipop (OS 5.x) is currently required to use the application, although the app description in the play store does say that an update is currently being tested to bring compatibility with Android Marshmallow.

App permissions are one of the major concerns that have been associated with the Android platform as part of a greater awareness of the security pitfalls associated with technology, which has been brought to the forefront over the past several years. Google did reveal a set of guidelines on their Android Developer website in January with hopes of getting developers on the platform to be more conscientious about the app permissions required by their applications. However, not every developer is willing or necessarily able to go back through all of their code to ensure their applications are permissions-savvy. Until then, users can count on an ever growing number of applications just like Privacy Assistant to gain some peace of mind.

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