Android apps more open than users know

Researchers discovered that many popular Android apps share sensitive user details without the person's consent

One of the elements of Android that is often touted over iOS and other mobile platforms is that it is open source. The open nature of Android means that vendors can build on and extend the platform, or that developers are free to create apps unfettered by restrictive rules and approval processes. A new report, though, shows that many Android apps take that open nature a bit too far and share sensitive information without the user's knowledge.

Researchers from Duke University, Penn State University, and Intel Labs conducted a study of popular Android apps using a proof-of-concept tool called TaintDroid which analyzes what Android apps do with the data they have access to. The results found that a majority of the apps tested send private user information to advertising networks without the knowledge or explicit permission of the user.

According to the report, "Using TaintDroid to monitor the behavior of 30 popular third-party Android applications, we found 68 instances of potential misuse of users' private information across 20 applications."

The research report concludes, "While some mobile phone operating systems allow users to control applications' access to sensitive information, such as location sensors, camera images, and contact lists, users lack visibility into how applications use their private data."

This summarizes the issue with Android. The Android OS does have security controls in place, and doesn't just let app developers access and share sensitive information without user consent. However, once that approval is granted during the app installation process, the user is not provided with any further details about how or when that information will be used.

The researchers found that the offending apps are guilty of sending sensitive data such as the user's phone number and current GPS location information to advertising networks even when ads are not being displayed on the device. The app developers can claim that permission was granted, but the reality is that in most cases the app developer never spelled out why it needs access to sensitive information or what will be done with it. Users just blindly trust the developer and give carte blanche access to sensitive information in exchange for the privilege of installing and using the app.

This breach of trust and personal privacy is a concern for users, but it is an even bigger issue for IT admins faced with growing demand to allow Android smartphones to connect with the network infrastructure and resources of the organization. Without sufficient control over how and when sensitive information is shared, or the ability to monitor and protect remote devices, IT admins can't in good conscience welcome Android smartphones into the environment.

Of course, it is only because Android is open source that the researchers were able to create the TaintDroid tool to investigate app behavior and discover this issue. IT admins should be wary of how much access third-party apps have to sensitive information and how that data is used on other platforms as well.

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Tony Bradley

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