Smartphone apps: Is your privacy protected?

Are your apps putting your privacy at risk? We look at the dangers and solutions for Android, BlackBerry and iOS mobile platforms.

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BlackBerry 'Trusted App status'

(This section was adapted from an article previously published on CIO.com entitled "How to Manage BlackBerry Application Permissions.")

Research In Motion (RIM) designed its BlackBerry smartphone operating system with security in mind from the start, and it shows: The operating system offers a number of ways for smartphone owners and IT administrators to control how mobile applications interact with a BlackBerry and all of the data stored on it. (Note: The information provided here specifically refers to the BlackBerry 6 mobile operating system, but most of the advice is also applicable to other recent versions of RIM's OS.)

Trusted Application status

Whenever you install a new BlackBerry application, even before you open it for the first time, you're asked if you want to grant the software "Trusted Application status." By granting this status to an application, you're allowing it to access potentially sensitive information on your device without prompting you for permission again.

Once you grant an app Trusted status, you can always go into your individual application permissions and modify them or remove the Trusted status. But it's a good idea not to grant this special status for the majority of apps you install.

You should be very selective about the apps that get Trusted status. Examples of applications that might deserve Trusted App status are those from reliable developers and/or brands you have an established relationship with, very popular apps without any sort of negative security- or privacy-related reviews in BlackBerry App World (RIM's mobile software shop) or elsewhere, and, perhaps, applications you use or have used frequently enough to trust but that require constant permissions acknowledgments.

But keep in mind that when you give a BlackBerry app Trusted status, you're basically giving it free reign over your device, and that could lead to trouble.

app privacy
A new BlackBerry app gives you the chance to give it Trusted Application status.

Managing BlackBerry app permissions

BlackBerry application permissions are broken down into three categories: Connections, which control application-access to device features including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi USB, etc.; Interactions, which dictate how applications can interact with device settings, media and recording options etc.; and User Data, which lets you decide which personal data to make available to applications.

When you first install or open a new BlackBerry app, it may prompt you for access to specific device features and functionality. You'll then have options to either grant the required permission or deny it. In addition, you'll often see a "Do not ask again" option that lets you grant the app ongoing access to that specific feature or functionality.

You should pay particular attention to permission requests related to your personal user data, since this type of data is usually the most sensitive information stored on your smartphone. It also pays to be skeptical of apps that request access to core BlackBerry functions, like network connectivity, messages, and GPS and/or cell-tower-based location information.

Some applications legitimately require access to sensitive user information including email, organizer data, files and BlackBerry "security data," such as keystore keys and certificates. And some applications, like the app for the popular location-based social network FourSquare, clearly need access to your location data. So you shouldn't automatically deny requests for access to such information.

But you do want to pay attention to the kinds of permissions that apps are asking for. If something seems odd, deny the permissions request and see if the app still functions the way it should. Denying a permission request could affect some functionality in the app, but sometimes the software will still work fine. And you can always modify the permissions at a later date if you need to.

For example, if a news reader application requests access to your location information, you might want to deny that request, because such an app should be able to function without your location. Many ad-based applications will request access to your location data so they can serve up relevant advertisements based on your whereabouts. However, denying a location request from such an app may stop it from functioning properly because the developer could have built in a feature that blocks content from being served if ads are disabled.

To modify BlackBerry application permissions at any point, simply open up Options, click Device and then Application Management. In BlackBerry 6, you'll next see a screen that lists all of the applications installed on your device. Find and highlight the app for which you wish to change permissions, tap your BlackBerry Menu key and then select the Edit Permissions option.

On the next screen, you'll see options for the three BlackBerry permissions categories. Scroll over one of them, hit your BlackBerry Menu key again and choose Expand to see the full list of permissions within each category. To change a specific permission, find it within the appropriate category and then change the setting to Allow or Deny.

Some specific permissions also offer a Prompt option, which makes the app request approval for access to certain features or functionality every time it needs them or until you grant it full permission. The Prompt function can be valuable because it notifies you whenever an app is accessing a potentially sensitive function or personal data.

The overall message here: You may occasionally want to avoid using apps that look interesting but also seem suspicious. If that cool new app everyone is talking about comes from a developer you've never heard of that's located in some far-off land, you should think twice about granting access to your location information, cellular network connectivity or personal data.

In the end, managing BlackBerry application permissions is not a science, but it takes more than a little common sense -- even a bit of paranoia on occasion. But properly managing your app permissions will pay off with the peace of mind of knowing your smartphone isn't subjecting you, your reputation or your wallet to any undue risk.

(For more details on managing BlackBerry smartphone application permissions, check out CrackBerry.com's post on the subject.)

Al Sacco

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