Smartphone app permissions guide
Navigating the minefield of smartphone app permissions can be tricky, especially when you first start downloading content. We're asked to grant permission or give consent for so much online, from accepting a friend request on Facebook to ticking the 'I agree' box on terms & conditions for a PC programme we're downloading.
Now that most of us are downloading a variety of handy apps straight to our smartphone, knowing the facts about app permissions is key to ensuring our personal data stays safe and secure. Different apps ask for different levels of permissions - from accessing our contact lists to our private emails, photos and sometimes even our passwords for services like Facebook and Twitter.
What are smartphone app permissions?
When we install an application onto our handset, it will require access to certain information or features on the phone in order to function correctly. Sometimes the level of access required is minimal - a new game, for example, may ask for access to the speakers in order to play a soundtrack or mute other applications while it's active, which is pretty much a no brainer.
But when a shiny new app requests access to all sorts of surprising areas of your mobile device, for example your contacts and emails, we often find ourselves asking why does that program need access to so much information, and what will it use my data for?
App permissions alert - what to watch out for
There are three main ways that unscrupulous developers and hackers can use app permissions to access your personal information or cost you money:
- Requesting additional unneccessary permissions in order to access your personal information, e.g. a wallpaper selection gallery requesting access to your text messages
- Hiding malicious code behind legitimate permissions, e.g. a wallpaper selection gallery app requesting access to your dialling application, in order to make premium rate phone calls without your consent or knowledge
- Tricking you into entering sensitive data like your credit card details, e.g. a Wallpaper Selection Gallery asks for your credit card details for age checks etc.
Smartphone app permissions tips by Operating System
Google give their users a lot of visibility when it comes to app permissions. Every time you download an app, you'll see a list of permission requests that you need to accept before the app can be installed - this can be confusing. Also, because an Android phone has flexible open source software, it's more open to abuse from naughty developers.
Android applications run in something called a "sandbox". This is an isolated area of the Operating System that doesn’t have access to the rest of the phone’s resources, unless you grant the app permission to access particular content. This means it's down to you to decide whether you're comfortable with the amount of personal information each individual app requests access to.
To check an app's permissions and/or remove it from your phone:
- From your home screen, access main menu > settings > applications > manage applications, and find the application you want to remove from the list
- Tap the application and scroll down to see its permissions
- If you don’t like what you see, on the same page you can tap 'uninstall' to remove the application and revoke all permissions at the same time.
Unlike Android smartphones, Apple iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad devices don't require you to accept permissions when downloading applications. Your permission is automatically granted the moment you select an app to download, enter your iTunes password and hit 'install'.
This might sound scary at first, but Apple subject every single application to rigorous security tests before allowing users to access them on the App Store. What this means is less confusion for you over what permissions to grant, but less control over what an application is actually doing with the data on your handset.
Because Apple have been criticised for their approach to app permissions they have vowed to allow the user greater visibility of permission requests in the future. For now, it's best to trust your instincts when downloading an app - look at the star ratings, read the reviews. If it's received a low star rating or lots of negative comments about force closes/crashes and poor functionality, we recommend that you don't download it. If you're worried you can also check out the developer's feedback before downloading.
To remove an app from your Apple iOS device:
- On the homescreen, or the folder that your app's in, hold your finger down on the icon for the application you wish to remove
- When the icons start to shake, tap the small 'X' in the top left hand corner of the app
- The application will still be in your iTunes on your PC, to remove it completely from your iTunes account you need to delete it from the desktop version of your software.
When an app is submitted to BlackBerry App World it's tested by Research in Motion (the manufacturer of Blackberry smartphones) to ensure that it conforms to their strict security guidelines and rules on what the app can do. It is then made available to you for download.
When you select an app to install you'll be given the option to allow either 'trusted permissions', or just the permissions requested by the app in order for it to work. Most apps will show you what they need permission to access, so you can decide whether or not you're happy to go ahead and install. If an app needs access to certain information and you deny access, it won't be able to function properly.
Don't worry, if you set an app’s permissions wrong or aren't happy with what the app has access to, you can always go into Options – Device – Application Management, find the app and choose Permissions to then edit them!
To remove an app from a BlackBerry smartphone:
- Find and highlight the app, then press the BlackBerry Menu Key and select Delete
- OR go into Options > Device > Application Management, then find the app and choose Delete
- OR plug your device into BlackBerry Desktop Software, choose Applications from the left hand side and press the 'X' to the far right of the app.
Windows Phone users are in a fortunate position. The Windows Phones platform grants very few permissions to applications for security reasons, so it's very secure for users.
The only permissions requests you will receive are for access to specific phone features, such as location services (mapping applications), your media library (music/picture applications) and the ability to run under the lock screen. All other features are actually anonymous with a unique ID, allowing tracking but no identifying. Applications are run in their own protected space, and have no access to any private information that you do not enter into the app directly, for instance a password for an online service so that you can receive live updates.
Due to Microsoft’s rather stringent testing procedures there are no current infections, malicious apps, and you don't need to worry about installing security software. In fact Microsoft pulled a certain anti-virus app from their marketplace, as they judged it to do literally nothing!
To remove an application from a Windows Phone device:
- Flick the homescreen to the left to view the applications list > press and hold your finger on the application you wish to remove > tap uninstall > when asked to confirm select 'Yes'
- To remove a game tap on games > tap and hold on the game in question before selecting 'uninstall'.