Articles by tag: Permissions

The PerMission Store
Examining the Privacy Decisions Facing Users
Social Ratings of Application Permissions (Part 4: The Goal)
Social Ratings of Application Permissions (Part 3: Permissions Within a Domain)
Social Ratings of Application Permissions (Part 2: The Effect of Branding)
Social Ratings of Application Permissions (Part 1: Some Basic Conditions)

The PerMission Store

Tags: Android, Permissions, Security, User Studies

Posted on 21 February 2017.

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

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, one type of privacy decision users have to make is which app to install. Typically, when choosing an app, users pick from the first few apps that come up when they search a keyword in their app store, so the app store plays a big roll in which apps users download.

Unfortunately, most major app stores don’t help users make this decision in a privacy-minded way. Because these stores don’t factor privacy into their ranking, the top few search results probably aren’t the most privacy-friendly, so users are already picking from a problematic pool. Furthermore, users rely on information in the app store to choose from within that limited pool, and most app stores offer very little in the way of privacy information.

We’ve built a marketplace, the PerMission Store, that tackles both the ranking and user information concerns by adding one key component: permission-specific ratings. These are user ratings, much like the star ratings in the Google Play store, but they are specifically about an app’s permissions.1

To help users find more privacy friendly apps, the privacy ratings are incorporated into the PerMission Store’s ranking mechanism, so that apps with better privacy scores are more likely to appear in the top hits for a given search. (We also consider factors like the star rating in our ranking, so users are still getting useful apps.) So users are selecting from a more privacy-friendly pool of apps right off the bat.

Apps’ privacy ratings are also displayed in an easy-to-understand way, alongside other basic information like star rating and developer. This makes it straightforward for users to consider privacy along with other key factors when deciding which app to install.

Incorporating privacy into the store itself makes it so that choosing privacy-friendly apps is as a natural as choosing useful apps.

The PerMission Store is currently available as an Android app and can be found on Google Play.

A more detailed discussion of the PerMission Store can be found in Section 3.1 of our paper.

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

1: As a bootstrapping mechanism, we’ve collected rating for a couple thousand apps from Mechanical Turk. Ultimately, though, we expect the ratings to come from in-the-wild users.

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.

Social Ratings of Application Permissions (Part 4: The Goal)

Tags: Android, Permissions, Security, User Studies

Posted on 31 May 2013.

(This is the fourth post in our series on Android application permissions. Click through for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

In this, the final post in our application permissions series, we'll discuss our trajectory for this research. Ultimately, we want to enable users to make informed decisions about the apps they install on their smartphones. Unfortunately, informed consent becomes difficult when you are asking users to make decisions in an area in which they have little expertise. Rating systems allow users to rely on the collective expertise of other users.

We intend to integrate permission ratings in to the app store in much the same way that functionality ratings are already there. This allows users to use visual cues they are already familiar with, such as the star rating that appears on the app page.

Modified main page

We may also wish to convey to users how each individual permission is rated. This finer-grained information gives users the ability to make decisions in line with their own priorities. For example, if users are particularly concerned about the integrity of their email accounts, an app that has a low-rated email access permission may be unacceptable to a user, even if the app receives otherwise high scores for permissions. We can again leverage well-known visual cues to convey this information, perhaps with meters similar to password meters, as seen in the mock-up image below.

Modified permissions page

There are a variety of other features we may want to incorporate into a permission rating system: allowing users to select favorite or trusted raters could enable them to rely on a particularly savvy relative or friend. Additionally, users could build a privacy profile, and view ratings only from like-minded users. Side-by-side comparisons of different apps' permissions rating could let users choose between similar apps more easily.

Giving users an easy way to investigate app permissions will allow them to make privacy a part of their decision-making process without requiring extra work or research on their part. This will improve the overall security of using a smartphone (or other permission-rich device), leaving users less vulnerable to unintended sharing of their personal data.

There's more! Click through to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3of the series!

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!

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!

Social Ratings of Application Permissions (Part 1: Some Basic Conditions)

Tags: Android, Permissions, Security, User Studies

Posted on 18 May 2013.

(This is the first post in our series on Android application permissions. Click through for Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.)

Smartphones obtain their power from allowing users to install arbitrary apps to customize the device’s behavior. However, with this versatility comes risk to security and privacy.

Different manufacturers have chosen to handle this problem in different ways. Android requires all applications to display their permissions to the user before being installed on the phone (then, once the user installs it, the application is free to use its permissions as it chooses). The Android approach allows users to make an informed decision about the applications they choose to install (and to do so at installation time, not in the midst of a critical task), but making this decision can be overwhelming, especially for non-expert users who may not even know what a given permission means. Many applications present a large number of permissions to users, and its not always clear why an application requires certain permissions. This requires users to gamble on how dangerous they expect a given application to be.

One way to help users is to rely on the expertise or experiences of other users, an approach that is already common in online marketplaces. Indeed, the Android application marketplace already allows users to rate applications. However, these reviews are meant to rate the application as a whole, and are not specific to the permissions required by the application. Therefore the overall star rating of an application is largely indicative of users’ opinions of the functionality of an application, not the security of the application. When users do offer opinions about security and privacy, as they sometimes do, these views are buried in text and lost unless the user reads all the comments.

Our goal is to make security and privacy ratings first-class members of the marketplace rating system. We have begun working on this problem, and will explain our preliminary results in this and a few more blog posts. All the experiments below were conducted on Mechanical Turk.

In this post, we examine the following questions:

  • Will people even rate the app's permissions? Even when there are lots of permissions to rate?
  • Does users’ willingness to install a given application change depending on when they are asked to make this choice - before they’ve reflected on the individual permissions or after?
  • Do their ratings differ depending on how they were told about the app?
The short answers to these questions is: yes (and yes), not really, and not really. In later posts we will introduce some more interesting questions and explore their effects.

We created surveys that mirrored the data provided by the Android installer (and as visible on the Google Play Web site). We examined four applications: Facebook, Gmail, Pandora, and Angry Birds. We asked respondents to rate the acceptability of the permissions required by each application and state whether they would install the application if they needed an app with that functionality.

In the first condition, respondents were asked whether they would install the app before or after they were asked to rate the app’s individual permissions. In this case, only Angry Birds showed any distinction between the two conditions: Respondents were more likely to install the application if the were asked after they were asked to rate the permissions.
Overall, however, the effect of asking before or after was very small; this is good, because it suggests that in the future we can ignore the overall rating, and it also offers some flexibility for interface design.

The second condition was how the subject heard about the app (or rather, how they were asked to imagine they heard about it). Subjects were asked to imagine either that the app had been recommended to them by a colleague, that the app was a top “featured app” in the app store, or that the app was a top rated app in the app store. In this case, only Facebook showed any interesting results: respondents were less likely to install the application if it had been recommended by a colleague than if it was featured or highly rated. This result is particularly odd given that, due to the network effect of an app like Facebook, we would expect the app to be more valuable if friends or colleagues also use it. We would like to study this phenomenon further.
Again, though this finding may be interesting, the fact that it has so little impact means we can set this condition aside in our future studies, thus narrowing the search space of factors that do affect how users rate permissions.

That concludes this first post on this topic. In future posts we’ll examine the effect of branding, and present detailed ratings of apps in one particular domain. Stay tuned!

There's more! Click through to read Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of the series!