Android Apps and Privacy

Floodgates

Android users seem to be infatuated with this new beta of Themer, an insanely-customizable, community-driven launcher. I was all set to download it and try it out, but the list of required permissions gave me pause.

Google, being in the business of data mining itself, only informs users of these permissions right before the app is downloaded. So I got this permissions list for Themer courtesy of AppBrain:

Can access your contacts
Apps can access the list of contacts (names, phone numbers, emails)
Can access your accounts
Apps can discover your accounts and get your email address
May cost you money
Apps can use SMS services or phone calls which cost you money
Has access to your messages
Apps are capable of reading your messages (eg email, sms)
May share your location
Apps can determine your current location and send it

Most of this makes sense, I suppose. Location data is needed to display the weather, access to email and SMS is needed to display widgets… And hey, Facebook already has your address book, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is our privacy. There’s an old Web 2.0 adage which warns that if you’re not paying for a product or service then you are the product being bought and sold. Some of you may be okay with this; I’m not.

For the longest time I resisted using Google products, opting instead to pay a monthly fee for a hosted PIM service built on open data formats. But when I moved to Android in 2010 the convenience of Gmail, Calendar, et al proved too alluring to resist. So I gave in. I’m still not entirely comfortable with that decision. I do have other email and chat accounts for stuff I don’t want Google to see. Nonetheless, I gave in.

Aviate, the Android launcher I started using this month, needs permission to access my calendar data so that upcoming appointments can be accessed directly from my home screen. There’s no promise that this information won’t be harvested and sold to a third party, and denying that permission via a custom ROM breaks the app.

Unfortunately, Aviate is an amazing product, one that makes every other traditional Android launcher seem old-fashioned in comparison. So it looks like I’m going to give in, again.

And back to Themer, my current opinion is that it’s far too aggressive with the permissions it seeks. But there may well come a day when I give in to that as well. In this brave new world of smartphones it seems that keeping our data private is a losing battle. And we’ve only ourselves to blame…