Social Ratings of Application Permissions (Part 3: Permissions Within a Domain)

Tags: Android, Permissions, Security, User Studies

Posted on 29 May 2013.

(This is the third post in our series on Android application permissions. Click through for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.)

In a prior post we discussed the potential value for a social rating system for smartphone apps. Such a system would give non-expert users some information about apps before installing them. Ultimately, the goal of such a system would be to help users choose between different apps with similar functionality (for an app they need) or decide if the payoff of an app is worth the potential risk of installing it (for apps they want). Both of these use cases would require conscientious ratings of permissions.

We chose to study this issue by considering the range of scores that respondents give to permissions. If respondents were not considering the permissions carefully, we would expect the score to be uniform across different permissions. We examined the top five weather forecasting apps in the Android marketplace: The Weather Channel, WeatherBug Elite, Acer Life Weather, WeatherPro, and AccuWeather Platinum. We chose weather apps because they demonstrate a range of permission requirements; Acer Life Weather requires only four permissions while AccuWeather Platinum and WeatherBug Elite each require eleven permissions. We asked respondents to rate an app's individual permissions as either acceptable or unacceptable.

Our findings, which we present in detail below, show that users will rate application permissions conscientiously. In short, we found that although the approval ratings for each permission are all over 50%, they vary significantly from permission to permission. Approval ratings for individual permissions ranged from 58.8% positive (for “Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage”) to 82.5% (for “Find accounts on the device”). The table at the bottom of this post shows the percentage of users who considered a given permission acceptable. Because the ratings range from acceptable to unacceptable, they are likely representative of a given permissions' risk (unlike uniformly positive or negative reviews). This makes them effective tools for users in determining which applications they wish to install on their phones.

Meaningful ratings tell us that it is possible to build a rating system for application permissions to accompany the existing system for functionality. In our next post, we'll discuss what such a system might look like!

Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage 58.8 %
Send sticky broadcast 60 %
Control vibration 67.5 %
View Wi-Fi connections 70 %
Read phone status and identity 70 %
Test access to protected storage 72.5 %
Google Play license check 73.8 %
Run at startup 75.8 %
Read Google service configuration 76.3 %
Full network access 76.5 %
Approximate location 79 %
View network connections 80.5 %
Find accounts on the device 82.5 %
There's more! Click through to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4 of the series!