Hidden Android feature allows users to fine tune app permissions

Hidden Android feature allows users to fine tune app permissions

Summary: A feature that made it into version 4.3 of Android, but wasn't announced by Google, now allows users to restrict specific permissions in apps, rather than take an all-or-nothing approach when choosing to install.

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TOPICS: Security, Android, Google
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With Android 4.3 starting to roll out to a number of devices, one of the things that Google has not mentioned is that the update has a new, hidden feature that can restrict the permissions of apps on a case-by-case basis.

appops
Three permission screens from the hidden App ops feature.
(Image: Screenshot by Michael Lee/ZDNet)

Called App ops, the hidden feature is built into the mobile operating system, but hasn't yet been linked to any of Android's settings menus. It allows users to selectively remove permissions to phone features, such as access to location, contacts, or the device's camera. It also gives users a rough indication of whether these permissions have ever been used in the app.

Android Police first noted the feature, showing how third-party applications like Nova Launcher can be used to access the hidden settings screen, but an application, App Ops Starter, has already been released on the Play store to give users easy access to the settings. It appears to be an intended future feature of the operating system, and, as such, does not require users to root their phones.

Each app's permissions can be toggled on a per-app basis, giving users the option of installing applications that they might consider to overstep their privacy bounds, but catching any permissions at the operating system level. For example, users who may not like Facebook's ability to track their location or read their contacts can disable these permissions, while still allowing other features of the app.

It also gives the user a rough idea of how often apps are accessing their information, showing how long ago it attempted to use a permission.

One reason why the feature may not have been completely implemented is that it does not currently tell the user when permissions that have been blocked are accessed. This can cause problems for app developers who never anticipated that specific permissions would be blocked, with some apps silently failing.

Other rough edges include the inability to completely remove certain permissions. For example, there doesn't appear to be any way to restrict network access for any apps, and although some apps such as the Google Play Store have the permission to send SMSes, there is no toggle option to disable it.

Topics: Security, Android, Google

Michael Lee

About Michael Lee

A Sydney, Australia-based journalist, Michael Lee covers a gamut of news in the technology space including information security, state Government initiatives, and local startups.

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14 comments
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  • Permission Manager on the store

    Check this app for easy access: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=me.boogoo.permissionmanager.app.ops.launcher
    Kurt94
    • Nexus 4

      Not compatible?
      PreachJohn
      • So Said Play Store On My PC

        Decided to try from my Nexus 4 itself. It installed. Go figger.
        This issue is something that has astounded me for some time now.
        The unbelievable permissions demanding granting to install most Apps. They own your phone and wallet in many cases.
        Someone can still do a blockbuster expose Article. Avast has a Privacy feature that lists how many installed Apps hold which permissions.
        PreachJohn
  • Best feature yet.

    I'm using "App ops starter" from the android market to launch and use app ops. I finally have the level of security I want out of my phone and tablet. Putting users in control of what permissions apps have is fantastic. It's given me peace of mind.

    People should talk about this more. On iPhone you can't even see app permissions at all. Apps spy on you left and right on the iPhone and everyone thinks they are safe. They aren't. They are just oblivious. The top is going to blow off that story eventually.

    Due to this one simple feature, Android is the most secure phone OS there is now.
    brother451
    • brother451: "Android is the most secure phone OS there is now"

      While a nice feature, this tool isn't even fully baked yet. Plus, it's for geeks.

      From the article:

      o "it does not currently tell the user when permissions that have been blocked are accessed"
      o "there doesn't appear to be any way to restrict network access for any apps"
      o "some apps such as the Google Play Store have the permission to send SMSes, there is no toggle option to disable it"

      This is like saying that GNU/Linux is the most secure desktop OS there is now because it includes Linux Security Modules. The user either has to use the feature to protect their apps of choice or has to first enable the feature if it's not enabled by default for the operating system before protecting their apps of choice. Linux Security Modules are for geeks too, including SUSE's graphical front-end to AppArmor.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Re: this tool isn't even fully baked yet

        Even in its unfinished state, it's still way ahead of anything any proprietary platform offers.
        ldo17
  • but

    great! at least something!!

    but it needs to show us all the permissions even before any app uses any permission...
    anywherehome
    • Ummm....

      We already see the permissions requested before we can install the app. You can't install ANY app in Android without seeing the permission request...not even from outside sources. If you choose not to read it, then it's an issue with the user, not the system.
      Droid Eye
      • Re: We already see the permissions requested before we can install the app

        Unfortunately, it's a take-it-or-leave-it situation at that point: not many developers provide an explanation of all the permissions their app needs, and the Play Store doesn't currently offer a way to grant only some of the permissions an app might demand, and reject others: you either install the app in its entirety or you don't.

        Hence the great interest in something like App Ops.
        ldo17
      • you didnt get the point

        you didnt get the point
        1) I want the app
        2) I want to deny just one permission before install
        3) I can not
        anywherehome
      • choice?

        What? You must accept EVERY permission, or else?
        Great attitude.
        Edith54
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