What is happening? Google removed the ability to view permission information for Android applications on its Play Store listings earlier in June 2022. Instead, this field has been replaced by a “data safety” form which is optional for developers to fill up and is consequently, mostly left blank. Previously, a user could view what features of a user’s smartphone that an app would be using before downloading and installing the app.
What is permission information? Every application on any smartphone needs to use certain features afforded to the phone, such as internet connectivity, camera, geo location, access to the hard drive, etc. For example, a payments app like Phonepe or PayTM would need access to contacts (for easier UPI transfers), camera (for QR code scanning), and among others. On the other hand a social media platform such as Instagram or Facebook would require access to the hard drive (for uploading photos), camera (to take pictures), geo location (for marking location in a post), etc. Until earlier in 2022, both Google and Apple — the world’s two primary smartphone operating system manufacturers — used to mandate that the apps listed on their stores inform users as to what features the app would be accessing before downloading.
Why this matters? Mandatory permission information allows users to see exactly what they would be signing up for if they were to download an app. This allowed potential users to then decide whether the access to sensitive information such as location or address book was worth the download. Essentially, this is a vital measure for transparency regarding the app’s functioning, but without this field being mandatory, many developers are skipping out on filling up this form, thus corroding the store’s transparency and by extension losing user trust.
Why has Google retracted permission info? While Google, itself, has not come up with any explanation as to why it has changed its policy, privacy researcher and Linux generalist Kingsly John, believes that it could be a move to keep up with Apple which has also made similar changes, although Apple has made it mandatory for all developers on its store to follow the changes or be removed. “However, there is a dark pattern in Google apps for many years now,” he noted, “The Play Store allows apps to claim that they do not need any additional permissions in order to not dissuade a user but then demand the same on the fly when a user has no option but to comply.” For example, instant loan apps such as MPokket or Navi used to claim “no additional permissions required” on their download pages but in order to be avail a loan, a user has to give these apps access to their contacts, camera, phone management and their device’s hard drive. Since the mandate has been removed, these apps show “no information available” on their data safety fields.
Do Apple and Microsoft also have similar policies? As mentioned previously, Apple also has removed the app permissions information from its App Store and has instead replaced the same with an “App Privacy” section, which although mandatory and far more descriptive than before, is still misleading as it cites location, purchase history, financial and contact information as data “not linked” with the user. Meanwhile, Microsoft, which is not in the phone market anymore still maintains an app store for PCs that includes mandated permissions information on the download page. However, unlike Apple, the permission info on the Microsoft Store is too generalised and does not contain all the app-specific details.
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