Social Ratings of Application Permissions (Part 2: The Effect of Branding)

Tags: Android, Permissions, Security, User Studies

Posted on 22 May 2013.

(This is the second post in this series. Click through for Part 1 and Part 3, and Part 4.)

In a prior post, we introduced our experiments investigating user ratings of smartphone application permissions. In this post we'll discuss the effect that branding has on users' evaluation of an app's permissions. Specifically, what effect does a brand name have on users' perceptions and ratings of an app?

We investigated this question using four well-known apps: Facebook, Gmail, Pandora Radio, and Angry Birds. Subjects were presented with a description of the app and its required permissions. We created surveys displaying the information presented to users in the Android app store, and asked users to rate the acceptability of the apps required permissions, and indicate whether they would install the app on their phone. Some of the subjects were presented with the true description of the app including its actual name, and the rest were presented with the same description, but with the well-known name replaced by a generic substitute. For example, Gmail was disguised as Mangogo Mail.

In the cases of Pandora and Angry Birds, there were no statistically significant differences in subjects' responses between the two conditions. However, there were significant differences in the responses for Gmail and Facebook.

For Gmail, participants rated the generic version's permissions as less acceptable and were less likely to install that version. For Facebook, however, participants rated the permissions for the generic version as less acceptable, but it had no effect on whether subjects would install the app. These findings raise interesting questions. Are the differences in responses caused by privacy considerations or other concerns, such as ability to access existing accounts? Why are people more willing to install a less secure social network than an insecure email client?

It is possible that people would be unwilling to install a generic email application because they want to be certain they could access their existing email or social network accounts. To separate access concerns from privacy concerns, we did a follow-up study in which we asked subjects to evaluate an app that was an interface over a brand-name app. In Gmail's case, for instance, subjects were presented with Gmore!, an app purporting to offer a smoother interaction with one's Gmail account.

Our findings for the interface apps was similar to the generic apps: for Facebook, subjects rated the permissions as less acceptable, but there was no effect on the likelihood of their installing the app; for Gmail, subjects rated the permissions as less acceptable and were less likely to install the app. In fact, the app that interfaced with Gmail had the lowest installation rate of any of the apps: just 47% of respondents would install the app, as opposed to 83% for brand-name Gmail, and 71% for generic Mangogo Mail. This suggests that subjects were concerned about the privacy of the apps, not just their functionality.

It is interesting that the app meant to interface with Facebook showed no significant difference in installation rates. Perhaps users are less concerned about the information on a social network than the information in their email, and see the potential consequences of installing an insecure social network as less dire than those associated with installing an insecure email client. This is just speculation, and this question requires further examination.

Overall, it seems that branding may play a role in how users perceive a given app's permissions, depending on the app. We would like to examine the nuances of this effect in greater detail. Why does this effect occur in some apps but not others? When does the different perception of permissions affect installation rates and why? These questions are exciting avenues for future research!

There's more! Click through to read Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4 of the series!