Irritation, Confusion and Deception in the Android Permission System

The Android permission system seemed like a great thing at first – crystal clear understanding about what each application can do on your device. However, with the latest round of updates, it has become even clear that the permission system is confusing at best and deliberately harmful for users at worst.

If you’re a privacy/security conscious, tech savvy user, you might end up poring over individual permissions for each application before deciding to install it. This can be time consuming – even experienced users might have to hit up Google to see exactly what a permission means. Sometimes you might even veto an app or an upgrade because of onerous permissions. But if you watch normal civilians use their phone, they barely even glance at the security options, during install or upgrade. I’ll even confess to giving up dealing with permissions and just installing an app because I felt I “needed” it.

Everything looked good for a while back in Android 4.3 with the discovery of the permission tweaking system which lead to “App Ops”, allowing users to selectively enable/disable permissions on a per-application basis, granting total control over what they had access to. This was perfect, but sadly was pulled in a later release, with Google saying wasn’t intended to be available. The clever hackers over at CyanogenMod restored it as part of their release, but there’s basically no way to have fine-grained control over your apps – meaning you accept everything permission that they want, or you do without.

Here’s an example – I just received notice of an update for PasswdSafe:

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Now, the “What’s New” notes are provided by the application developer. Sometimes they are nice enough to include details about why there was a permission change, but I would say this is generally pretty rare.

Here’s what happens when you click ‘Update’:

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You only get this sort of popup when there’s a permission change. So this popup implies – to me, at least – that there’s some sort of permission change involving media, or files, or whatever.

But if you scroll to the bottom of the app page to click on the ‘Permission Details’ icon, you’ll see this:

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Here you can see the new permission actually has something to do with Near-Field Communication! (So in this case, the changelog provided by the developer actually does relate directly to the permission change, though it’s not really clear until you manually inspect the permissions like this.)

While you can find the information, this current flow is totally broken. It’s infuriating that the recent change now seems to actively hide and thus mislead the user.

This UI change is a massive step back for Android; it compromises the ability of the user to make informed decisions about the software on their device.

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