Examining the Privacy Decisions Facing Users

Tags: Android, Permissions, Security, User Studies

Posted on 25 January 2017.

This is Part 1 of our series on helping users manage app permissions. Click here to read Part 2.

It probably comes as no surprise to you that users are taking their privacy in their hands every time they install or use apps on their smartphones (or tablets, or watches, or cars, or…). This begs the question, what kinds of privacy decisions are users actually making? And how can we help them with those decisions?

At first blush, users can manage privacy in two ways: by choosing which apps to install, and by managing their apps’ permissions once they’ve installed them. For the first type of decision, users could benefit from a privacy-conscious app store to help them find more privacy-respecting apps. For the second type of decision, users would be better served by an assistant that helps them decide which permissions to grant.

Users can only making installation decisions when they actually have a meaningful choice between different apps. If you’re looking for Facebook, there really aren’t any other apps that you could use instead. This left us wondering if users ever have a meaningful choice between different apps, or whether they are generally looking for a specific app.

To explore this question, we surveyed Mechanical turk workers about 66 different Android apps, asking whether they thought the app could be replaced by a different one. The apps covered a broad range of functionality, from weather apps, to games, to financial services.

It turns out that apps vary greatly in their “replaceability,” and, rather than falling cleanly into “replaceable” and “unique” groups, they run along a spectrum between the two. At one end of the spectrum you have apps like Instagram, which less than 20% of workers felt could be replaced. On the other end of the spectrum are apps like Waze, which 100% of workers felt was replaceable. In the middle are apps whose replaceability depends on which features you’re interested in. For example, take an app like Strava, which lets you track your physical activity and compete with friends. If you only want to track yourself, it could be replaced by something like MapMyRide, but if you’re competing with friends who all use Strava, you’re pretty much stuck with Strava.

Regardless of exactly which apps fall where on the spectrum, though, there are replaceable apps, so users are making real decisions about which apps to install. And, for irreplaceable apps, they are also having to decide how to manage those apps’ permissions. These two types of decisions require two approaches to assisting users. A privacy-aware marketplace would aid users with installation decisions by helping them find more privacy-respecting apps, while a privacy assistant could help users manage their apps’ permissions.

Click here to read about our privacy-aware marketplace, the PerMission Store, and stay tuned for our upcoming post on a privacy assistant!

A more detailed discussion of this study can be found in Section 2 of our paper.