Take Back Your App Privacy with Android Custom ROMs

At this point in time an Android custom ROM probably won’t protect you from NSA spying. There are some steps you can take to protect yourself in that regard, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Today we’re all about app privacy, the oftentimes dubious permissions that applications request from your device.

Among the worst offenders is the official Facebook app. It’s a documented fact that upon launch Facebook will help itself to your phone’s entire address book. I’m not talking about scanning it for friends that you already have on the network — this malware-like behaviour happens before you even log in to your account.

Don’t believe me? Check the screen grab below.

MIUI – The Gold Standard

Facebook on MIUI

Aha! Caught you red-handed…

This is the official MIUI ROM for Nexus 7, version 3.2.22 — the version number doesn’t actually matter; all MIUI ROMs come with a built-in permissions manager, and it’s the most effective privacy tool I’ve ever experienced on Android. An app requests permission to do something and a window pops up, empowering  you to grant or deny that permission. Simple.

The good news is that it’s also available as a standalone download for rooted devices — look for LBE Privacy Guard in the official Play Store. The bad news is that it’s only compatible with Android versions up to 4.0 / Ice Cream Sandwich.

For a lot of Android modders, that simply won’t do.

CyanogenMod – All Or Nothing

Facebook on Cyanogen 2 Facebook on Cyanogen 1

Fortunately, other ROMs are now including privacy features of their own. The grabs above are from CyanogenMod 10.1.3 RC2 for the Nexus 4.

Cyanogen’s Privacy Guard can be turned on or off on an app-by-app basis. With it on you’ll see a status bar notification confirming that it’s running. Tap on the icon and you’ll be able to take another look at the permissions it wants (first screen) and then disable it if you deem it safe (second screen).

In the case of this particular app, Privacy Guard will indeed grant Facebook the permissions it wants, but hand over empty values — that is, the address book that Facebook gets will have zero entries.

It’s a clever idea, to be sure, but its all-or-nothing execution is problematic. What if some location-based app also wants access to your contacts? Turn privacy mode on and it won’t be able to access your address book or location. In other words, that app will most probably stop working.

Paranoid Android – Breaking It Down

Facebook on Paranoid Android

Here’s Paranoid Android, version 3.99 RC2 for the Nexus 4. It gives the user granular control over each permission that any app requests. It also falls upon the user to go into the settings and block suspicious permissions before that app is launched. It’s not nearly as elegant as MIUI’s permissions manager, but it’s the best solution I’ve found for Jelly Bean devices. It’s also the ROM I’ll be running on my Nexus 4 until I find something better.

So, three ROMs, three ways to protect your privacy on Android — plus one more reason to consider rooting your device.

I must admit that I’ve not used any commercial privacy apps for non-rooted phones, nor do I know much about privacy solutions for other mobile platforms. How do they compare with what I’ve shown you here?

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