Increased Permissions in Mobile Apps Increases Potential Risk

App user permissions should be justified, but many of them aren't.

Larry Loeb, Blogger, Informationweek

April 4, 2019

3 Min Read

Mobile security provider Wandera wondered what the iOS apps it covered in its networks were doing when they requested permissions from a user. So, they looked at 30,000 unique apps that were the most commonly installed within their network of corporate devices in order to find out more about exactly what they were requesting from the user.

This kind of review is novel. While most users will have anecdotal data, a look at how apps as a whole request information has not been previously released.

In the blog that summarizes what they found out, they note that "When it comes to personal information on iPhones, apps are required to request your permission to access it and explain why they need it. Personal information in this context includes things like current location, calendars, contact information, photos and more. Apps usually ask for this level of access to improve functionality but sometimes it's without any justification at all. This becomes an issue when sloppy development leads to bugs that leak data putting your privacy and security at risk. This is why it's best to limit when apps collect this data."

Wandera found that the most requested permissions had to do with photos and locations. Their survey showed "Photo Library" was requested by 62% of apps, "Camera" was requested by 55% of the apps, and "Location When In Use" is requested by 51% of the apps. This kind of request is not surprising, when the uses are considered. Taking pictures of a whiteboard in meetings is not uncommon but it can allow sensitive corporate information to exist in photo libraries.

One-time uses like a profile set-up may also happen. The problem is after that use, the permission may not be rescinded, leaving that access open at all times.

Michael Covington, VP of product strategy at Wandera, spoke with Security Now and said, "Justification to access my personal information should not be a one-time event. As a consumer, I want to know how that PII is transmitted, where it is stored and who has access to it. None of this transparency exists today with mobile apps."

Permissions that are not usually thought of as "high risk" (which means Location Always, Microphone, Photo Library, and Contacts) can be misused and therefore deserve careful review.

While 17% of iOS apps ask for no permissions at all, most apps will request five or fewer permissions.

While Social Network category apps ask for the most permissions (4.96 on average), Weather is close behind (4.73). /p>

Shopping (4.5), Health & Fitness (4.48), and Finance (4.37) apps also ask for many permissions.

Covington realizes the problem goes beyond iOS. He also said that, "We did a study into Android app permissions last year and found similar trends. What's alarming on Android is that apps have more visibility across the device; for example, Android apps can see a list of other apps installed on the device, can read and write with more freedom and can even access more unique identifiers that allow them to pinpoint specific users."

Summing up, Covington has some techniques for users. "In addition to checking permissions, I encourage people to disable the permissions they're not comfortable granting; on iOS, there's a good chance you'll not break the app completely and can still enjoy the benefits it provides, without parting with too much sensitive information. […] I also disable location information for 90% of the applications installed on my device; it's easy enough for me to request the weather at the city-level, rather than share my precise location with the developer throughout the day."/p>

It's always a good idea to review any granted permissions to make sure they are still relevant.

— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.

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Security Now

About the Author(s)

Larry Loeb

Blogger, Informationweek

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange. His first Mac had 128 KB of memory, which was a big step up from his first 1130, which had 4 KB, as did his first 1401. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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