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Google's app permissions far too lax – security firm survey

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A security firm has criticised Android's all-or-nothing permission approach, arguing it unnecessarily creates extra privacy risks for businesses and consumers.

Users are obliged to accept an entire laundry list of requested permissions before they can download an Android app. Disagreement on any point means that the software package can't be downloaded.

Android permissions cannot be denied or granted after installation. An Android application declares the required permissions in its AndroidManifest.xml configuration file.

Cloud security firm Zscaler argues that users who get use to this model are likely to put less scrutiny on permissions than instant app gratification.

Zscaler analysed more than 75,000 apps from the Google Play store in order to find out the permissions that are commonly requested by the apps at the time of installation.

It found that more than two in three (68 per cent) of apps that request SMS permissions ask for the ability to send SMS messages. This factor could be playing into the hands of malware writers, according to Zscaler. "With most Android malware currently targeting premium SMS fraud, this is concerning, especially as users tend to indiscriminately accept requested permissions without scrutinising whether or not they’re truly needed," it warns.

In addition, around one in four (28 per cent) of apps with SMS permissions also request read SMS access. "This is somewhat unsettling as an increasing number of apps/services send codes via SMS for mobile banking or two factor authentication," Zscaler notes.

SMS related permissions are far from the only sensitive control. Zscaler says that GPS, phone call, personal information, address book, and device information permissions are all potentially high risk. Zscalar's enterprise-focused tech provides granular control of user activity in web, email and mobile environments. So the security firm, which also markets anti-virus software, is talking up a risk its technology is designed to mitigate.

That said, Zscaler is far from alone in criticising the poor permission control natively offered with Android apps. Google has yet to respond to our request for comment on Zscaler's research. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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