Android device manufacturers make smartphones equipped with pre-installed apps (bloatware), “which can leave users vulnerable to their data being collected, shared and exposed without their knowledge or consent,” said more than 50 privacy groups in an open letter to Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai. The letter, which includes signatories such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, DuckDuckGo and Privacy International, urged Google “to take action against exploitative pre-installed software on Android devices”. We have reached out to Google for comment and will update the story when they respond.

The letter said that “privacy cannot be a luxury offered only to those people who can afford it”. It added that while many of these smartphones have the “Google Play Protect” branding, 91% of the pre-installed apps on these devices are not even available on Google Play, while alluding to a research paper which was partially funded by the US National Science Foundation.  It further added:

“These pre-installed apps can have privileged custom permissions that let them operate outside the Android security model. This means permissions can be defined by the app — including access to the microphone, camera and location – without triggering the standard Android security prompts. Users are therefore completely in the dark about these serious intrusions.” — From the open letter to Google

Changes suggested:

  • Android phones should allow for permanently uninstalling pre-installed apps including any background tasks that continue to run even if the apps are disabled.
  • Pre-installed apps should be scrutinised similarly to apps available on the Play Store, especially in relation to custom permissions.
  • It should be possible to update these apps through Google Play Store without a user account.

The letter also said that Google should refuse to certify a device on privacy grounds, in case device manufacturers “attempt to exploit” users by virtue of these pre-installed apps.

In a separate statement, Privacy International, one of the 50+ signatories to the open letter, said that “Google has the power to dramatically improve the ecosystem of cheap phones, since it already certifies many manufacturers as part of its Android Partners programme.