Google removes 'awesome' but unintended privacy controls in Android 4.4.2

Google removes 'awesome' but unintended privacy controls in Android 4.4.2

Summary: Google's recent update Android 4.4.2 didn’t bring many changes, but it did break off a privacy feature that slipped into KitKat by accident.

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Praise for what some thought was a a new privacy feature in Android called the App Ops has turned to criticism after Google cut off access to the feature on devices running its latest version of its mobile operating system.

Hidden system app, App Ops. Image: Color Tiger.
Hidden system app, App Ops. Image: Color Tiger.

The App Ops UI could be exposed by installing one of several third-party apps launcher apps, offering users granular control over which resources each app has access to. For example, it could revoke or grant an app the ability to read location data and contacts, send SMS or MMS, or post notifications — addressing the seemingly unnecessary permissions that apps demand before they can be installed.

The removal of access to App Ops was brought to attention by the Electronics Frontier Foundation (EFF) last week, which had earlier praised Google for the surprise feature, calling it "awesome".

"Today, we installed that update to our test device, and can confirm that the App Ops privacy feature that we were excited about yesterday is in fact now gone," EFF technology projects director Peter Eckersley wrote.

Despite its potential usefulness as a privacy control, according to Google Android engineer Dianne Hackborn, the App Ops UI was never meant to have been exposed to end users.

"The current UI is definitely not something that is appropriate for end users; it is mostly for platform engineers (a tool for examining, debugging, and testing the state of that part of the system), maybe some day for third party developers. In what form these features might be available in the regular UI I couldn't really speculate about," Hackborn wrote in answer to questions from developers on Google+.

As noted by Android Police, Google had already begun tackling the exposure of App Ops with the release of Android 4.4 by making it harder for users to find, so that it's now fully blocked isn't a surprise.

Even though it was never meant to be available to users, the EFF's Eckersley reckons those that value privacy should avoid updating to 4.4.2.

"If app privacy is especially important to you — if, for instance, you want to be able to install an app like Shazam or Skype or Brightest Flashlight without giving it permission to know your location — we would have to advise you not to accept the update to 4.4.2."

However, he notes, users on 4.4.1 would be missing out on a few security fixes available as part of the subsequenty Android release.

The developers behind one of the third-party launchers, App Ops 4.3 / 4.4 KitKat, claim to be working on a fix to make the launcher function again on 4.4.2 but for now, it only works on Android versions 4.3 and 4.4.

Topics: Security, Android, Mobility, Privacy

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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34 comments
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  • Kinda sad to see

    Kinda sad to see that they actually think this way.

    There's nothing in the screenshot that looks inappropriate to end users.
    CobraA1
    • they had a great reason to remove it

      The average Joe would be in there tweaking settnings left and right without anything other than assumptions to guide him. When things quit working they would want Google or their OEM to fix it.

      That said, I would LOVE to have this app but I already updated my N5 too far.

      Sincerely,
      average Joe
      copracr
      • 3rd party tool

        You needed a 3rd party tool to expose it. The average Joe, then, already didn't have access to it. The average Joe probably also wouldn't start tweaking random stuff. Removal of such features typically involve political concerns, such as the reason why FLAC is not natively supported on Windows and Apple platforms. It's about business strategy.
        kouzen
      • get it back

        go to XDA forums and flash the Xposed installer and the download the AppOps setting, Works like a charm.
        Some Internet Dude
      • Re: they had a great reason to remove it

        How do you explain all the “Average Joes” using iOS 7 to do the same thing?
        StandardPerson
  • Foolish

    Foolish for people to think Google cares about your privacy. How else do you think they make their money?
    slappit
    • Google

      One more reason to hate Google even more.
      NothingButThesun
      • Hate them I do

        But I doubt it'll ever be more than I hate Apple ... or Microsoft.
        Pastabake
    • Google and its products are evil.

      I´m not saying that MS and Apple are saints but I´m saying that Google is extreme in its ways to monetize and is clear as crystal that Google manipulates its consumers as tools.

      The question about privacy is similar to freedom discussion and fought that many gave their lives in the past. Privacy is the right to control your destiny and preserve your identity and this is not a subjective matter!

      Google is become an uncontrolled monster that masters the minds of the masses.
      mxgms
      • Your opinion is okay.

        However, I don't share it. Google manipulates me by providing superior products without asking for money. That's good marketing.

        Google doesn't deserve much trust; that doesn't make it evil. I do business every day with companies I trust less.
        SlimSam
        • But people pay to use Android...

          And the price is not low, except for the subsidized products as Nexus 5.

          In this case Google is not permitting people have freedom to choose share personal information.

          Its a very dirty game.
          mxgms
  • It violates the Company's Core Business Model

    So, little wonder it was blocked. Imagine if their revenue sources suddenly could not get what they were paying for?

    After getting my Android phone and downloading a few apps requiring everything but my SSN, I decided to delete everything but the basic apps. Deleted every game, newsreader, etc that wanted access to my location, phone, contacts, camera, etc. that had no purpose other than for intrusion and to possible take control of my phone, possibly. Turned odd gps, Google sync and everything else I could so, it is no better than my older dumbphone. Had I fully realized just what was involved with Android and privacy and Google's marketing, I'd never have "upgraded" from my old phone. Marketing won out on a reasonable sane decision process.
    BrianLevyEsq
    • I keep

      location turned off on my nexus 4 as a matter of routine. I turned it on once last month to get directions to a restaurant I had not visited previously.
      2low_tech
    • How dare they

      How dare a company offer me a service for free and then use information to target ads which I can just ignore... Why does everyone have such an issue with targeted ads and such anyway? I'd profer to see an ad for a game on sale at amazon, then some random store that has nothing I want.

      If everyone had control of this, what would be the point of developing a game? Most of the income comes from ads, would you design a game which takes days/months to build and give it away for free?
      jessecw2
      • Was your phone or plan free?

        "How dare a company offer me a service for free and then use information to target ads which I can just ignore..."

        I get that Google doesn't charge carriers for Android, but I most certainly paid for my phone and many of the apps on it. I'm sure you did, too.
        daftkey
        • What does that have to do with 90% of apps?

          How many free apps do you use daily? When someone lives off of an app or a website that uses ad revenue, they are taking a big risk, so what you see an ad for an item on amazon you checked out, or for GM car parts (I'm on GM wifi at the moment)

          Rather do that than pay $.99 for a flashlight app
          jessecw2
          • Re:[rather ads] than pay $.99 for a flashlight app

            Really? I'd pay the $.99 every time.

            Many iOS apps let you turn off the ads if you pay. Provided the program is good, I'm happy to pay.

            If the program is poor then I toss it away and look at the competition.
            StandardPerson
      • re: How dare they

        > How dare a company offer me a service for free and then use
        > information to target ads

        LOL you make it sound like it's a fair deal.

        Google's net profit in the third quarter of 2013 was $3.44 billion.

        That represents the difference in the value of the services they provide "for free" and the value of personal info they take in return. In just three months.
        none none
        • Slightly more complex

          It’s slightly more complex. If there’s some social value to Google’s ads, for example in helping consumers to find things they want to buy, then the value created could exceed Google’s costs. I’m sceptical that this is the case, though. I think Google’s ad business is mostly parasitic and socially useless.

          With its dominant position, Google creates a rat race where everyone has to advertise just to stay in the same place they’d be if nobody advertised. Anyone who doesn’t advertise loses out, but if everyone advertises, nobody gains (except Google).

          What you’re left with is basically a parasitic organisation that simply sucks value out of the real economy (similarly to certain branches of finance). Even worse, the money that’s sucked out of the real economy is used to subsidise ‘free’ services, making it difficult or impossible for better services that aren’t subsidised to compete.

          What I dislike most about the Google business model (which some others sadly seem to be moving towards) isn’t the blatant privacy violations, but that it breaks the price mechanism that’s essential for market economics to function. You get ad-funded services like Gmail that are better than ‘free’ services that aren’t subsidised, but are a joke compared with more advanced commercial systems. Since these ‘free’ services are funded by ads, the costs of which are embedded in prices for all goods and services across the economy (owing to Google’s dominant web advertising position), there’s no way to avoid paying for them. The monetary price is hidden, but we all pay it, even those of us who don’t use Google’s services (even Google’s fiercest rivals, such as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, are also amongst the biggest buyers of its Google ads, because of the rat-race problem). In addition to being unable to avoid paying for Google services (whether or not they use them), the existence of these subsidised services makes people unwilling to pay market prices for better but unsubsidised services. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone except Google.
          WilErz
          • Good points.

            If I extend the reasoning, it seems that Google has gained a monopoly in an unregulated area of business, similar to the old railroad barons controlling the lines of commerce.

            On the issue of free adequate products vs. paid superior products. No agreement.

            "Adequate" is defined by the user. If a tool does what it needs to do, paying more for "better" doesn't make economic sense. In my experience, when a significantly better tool is developed, Google buys the company. The product isn't monopolized, but the whole marketplace is rigged.
            SlimSam