Consumers confused by smartphone consent

  • AFP
  • Updated: Jan 18, 2016 11:55 IST
People would like to give apps less permission. (AFP/Shutterstock)

A new study from researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley shows that too often consumers are unaware of what their Android apps are accessing and that if they were, they’d like to stop it.

When the latest version of Google’s Android operating system, Marshmallow, finally starts appearing on existing handsets, their users will get new levels of control when it comes to permission -- i.e., being able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an app’s need to share or access location or address book.

However, that day is a long way off. A year after rolling out, Lollipop, Marshmallow’s predecessor, is only running on one third of devices.

That means the majority of smartphone owners are in the dark or are at least very confused about what they’re sharing when they install an app. Permissions are given in list form during the installation process and the only way to refuse a condition is to not install an app.

For example, there was huge uproar when consumers found out a simple flashlight app ‘The Brightest Flashlight’ -- downloaded 100 million times from Google Play -- was recording and sharing user location and device information as well as keeping a phone’s camera flash on so it could be used as a torch.

But this uproar only came when the practice was exposed. And this was the starting point for the research team. Using a small group of 36 participants, they gave each person a handset with a tweaked form of Android that highlighted when information was being accessed or permission was needed.

After a week and 27 million data points, 80% of participants said they would have liked to block one permission, and on the whole one third of all requests would have been stopped if it had been possible.

Only six people in the group were happy to share all data and information all of the time.

The study shows that there needs to be a clearer way of detailing how and why apps need permission and giving users the chance to opt out. But it also highlights a bigger point about the creep of technology into every part of modern life.

Consumers are feeling so overwhelmed by requests from their smartphones, PCs and the online services that they habitually use, that they’re increasingly blindly clicking ‘accept’ or ‘OK’.

A Pew Research Center study, also published this week, shows that in the US consumers often balance the erosion of privacy or online security against perceived benefits.

For example, 54% of consumers would accept the introduction of surveillance equipment in their workplace if it were to catch thieves, but only 37% would accept an insurance company installing a black box in their car in return for lower premiums.

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