Android privacy assistant seeks to stop unwanted data collection

The English language app is free, but only works on rooted Android phones.

Not sure what your phone is collecting about you? A free Android app is promising to simplify the privacy settings on your smartphone, and stop any unwanted data collection.

The English language app, called Privacy Assistant, comes from a team at Carnegie Mellon University, who’ve built it after six years of research studying digital privacy.

“It’s very clear that a large percentage of people are not willing to give their data to any random app,” said CMU professor Norman Sadeh. “They want to be more selective with their data, so this assistant will help them do that.”

Their Privacy Assistant is designed to automatically modify your phone’s privacy settings for you, based on your views about certain types of data collection.

For instance, when the app first starts up, it’ll ask you three to five questions to gauge your privacy preferences. How do you feel about your social media accessing your camera? Or what about game apps pulling your location data?

cmu Norman Sadeh

From those answers, the app will recommend a particular set of privacy settings you should consider. Users can then approve the recommendations or alter them, accordingly.

The assistant may sound enticing, but it comes with a catch. The software only works with Android 5.x and 6.x phones that have been rooted -- which most Android users haven’t done.

Rooting a phone means gaining root access to the Android operating system, opening it up to full customization. But the act can also void your phone’s warranty or brick the phone, if done improperly.

Computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon have previously published research, showing that users are often alarmed when they learn their smartphone apps have been collecting their private data like locations.

Users, however, can face a cumbersome task when modifying their phone’s privacy settings or the app permissions.

“A typical Android user has between 50 and 100 apps, and these apps can require three permissions,” Sadeh said. “So you do the math, and the number of permissions can be overwhelming.”

Many apps are also collecting private user data when they don’t really need it, he said. The Privacy Assistant is designed to revoke those permissions, without causing any malfunctions with the offending app.

As the user downloads more software, the Privacy Assistant will continue to work in the background, recommending what new app permissions should be approved or denied.

07 recommendations Norman Sadeh

With root access, the CMU team’s Privacy Assistant app is able to automatically apply new permission settings to the phone. However, Sadeh estimates that only about 25 percent of all Android smartphones in the world are rooted and many of those are located in Asia.

He doesn’t recommend people root their phone just to use this app. But Sadeh believes his team’s Privacy Assistant will attract a “sizable population” of existing users who are concerned about their online privacy.

The app is also part of the researchers' larger efforts to streamline privacy settings. The hope is that Google, Apple, and device manufacturers will notice the benefits offered by their Privacy Assistant and incorporate the technology into their products.

Google is among those funding the university's work on online privacy, Sadeh said.

“People like this stuff,” he added. A smartphone manufacturer “would have an advantage over your competitors if you ended up putting this on the smartphone you sell to customers.”

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