Less privacy is not what smartphone users need, yet that is exactly what Google provided by removing an Android feature that gave people better control over the collection of sensitive data, such as location and address books.
The feature called App Ops was introduced in Android 4.3, drawing praise from privacy advocates. Two days later the feature was gone.
Google told privacy watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation that App Ops was removed from Android version 4.4.2, because the feature was an experiment that was introduced by accident. It also didn't work well with some apps.
However, I'm with the EFF, which takes the position that performance should be rated on how well App Ops protected users. Any problems the tool had with apps could be fixed with an update.
"The disappearance of App Ops is alarming news for Android users," Peter Eckersley, EFF technology projects director, said in a blog post. "The fact that they cannot turn off app permissions is a Stygian hole in the Android security model, and a billion people's data is being sucked through."
For people not up on their Greek mythology, Stygian refers to the Styx river that separated Earth and the underworld. Stygian can also mean dark, gloomy or hellish.
A big mistake
The App Ops interface certainly looks like the perfect tool for preventing apps from snatching data they don't need. The user interface is no more than a list of permissions, such as location, read contacts, send SMS and call phone, with a choice of "on" or "off" next to each.
Privacy doesn't get much simpler, so you have to wonder why Google pulled it, rather than release an update fixing the feature.
Google Android engineer Dianne Hackborn wrote on Google+ that App Ops was never intended for Android users, only for developers. But unless you are the latter, her explanation, reprinted by ThreatPost, doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
“That UI is, and it should be quite clear, not an end-user UI. It was there for development purposes. It wasn’t intended to be available. The architecture is used for a growing number of things, but it is not intended to be exposed as a big low-level UI of a big bunch of undifferentiated knobs you can twiddle. For example, it is used now for the per-app notification control, for keeping track of when location was accessed in the new location UI, for some aspects of the new current SMS app control, etc.”
Now that we all know App Ops exists, I'm with the EFF on this one. Android users should be able to stop any app from collecting data with a single switch. After all, whose data is it? Contact lists, unique identifiers for the phone and location tracking doesn't belong to some app developer trying to earn some coin from advertisers.
Google should go back to the lab, get rid of the kinks in App Ops and re-release it. There's no reason to deny Android users data control that is simple and effective.