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Australian government apps access smartmobe cams but 'don't film you'

Department of Human Services says its apps need cameras to deliver better services

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Australia's Department of Human Services (DHS) says apparently-excessive permissions sought by its mobile apps are necessary for service delivery, and don't put its customers' privacy at risk.

Last week, The Register quizzed the department over broad permissions sought by self-service apps offered for various DHS services, including income support payments agency Centrelink, health care agency Medicare and family support payments.

Having noted a complaint by a Twitter user that asking for access to a phone's camera “to take pictures and videos” seemed excessive, we checked out the permissions sought by the apps, as shown in the screen captures below.

In addition to seeking permission to use the camera, the apps ask for:

  • Personal information – Adding / modifying calendar events, sending e-mails and reading calendar events;
  • Account access;
  • Reading phone status and ID; and
  • Coarse location.
Centrelink App asking for camera permission
Centrelink Android Permissions

While The Register doesn't view this in the light of government conspiracy, excessive permission-seeking by apps is a serious problem. Permission handling recently turned up serious vulnerabilities, and developers often seem to opt for a default “ask for everything” attitude to permission-seeking.

The DHS has told The Register it doesn't misuse the data, and it believes that the permissions it seeks are necessary for the operation of its apps. In an e-mail, a spokesperson said: “Some permissions are necessary to allow the Express Plus app to work effectively with your device. The department does not use or keep personal information stored on customers' phones for departmental purposes.”

Its specific responses to permissions sought are that: location is required to give correct directions to offices, and is not stored by the DHS; phone access is required to allow you to contact the department while using the app, and calls are not logged; personal information access is required so the app can add appointments to the calendar, and the department says it retrieves no details.

This isn't the first time the Department has had to address these concerns: it posted this privacy notice in December when similar questions arose on social media, which got discussed at Hoax-Slayer. ®

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