Google pulls vital privacy feature from Android, claims release was accidental

“[Last week] we published a blog post lauding an extremely important app privacy feature that was added in Android 4.3,” Peter Eckersley writes for Electronic Frontier Foundation. “That feature allows users to install apps while preventing the app from collecting sensitive data like the user’s location or address book.”

“After we published the post, several people contacted us to say that the feature had actually been removed in Android 4.4.2, which was released earlier [last] week,” Eckersley explains. “We installed that update to our test device, and can confirm that the App Ops privacy feature that we were excited about yesterday is in fact now gone.”

MacDailyNews Take: Wow! You actually updated an Android device? Rare move. Congrats!

“When asked for comment, Google told us that the feature had only ever been released by accident — that it was experimental, and that it could break some of the apps policed by it,” Eckersley writes. “We are suspicious of this explanation, and do not think that it in any way justifies removing the feature rather than improving it. Many instances of apps ‘breaking’ when they are denied the ability to collect data like a location or an address book or an IMEI number can easily be fixed by, for instance, giving them back a fake location, an empty address book, or an IMEI number of all zeroes. Alternatively, Google could document for developers that these API calls may fail for privacy reasons. A good hybrid would be to use fake data for old versions of the Android API and cleanly defined Java exceptions in the next API level. As with many other changes that occur across Android devices and Android versions, some app developers might have to do minor updates to keep up.”

“The disappearance of App Ops is alarming news for Android users,” Eckersley writes. “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. Embarrassingly, it is also one that Apple managed to fix in iOS years ago.”

MacDailyNews Take: “Open” wide, settlers of fragmandroid!

“We’re not sure what to say to Android users. If app privacy is especially important to you — if, for instance, you want to be able to install an app like Shazam or Skype or Brightest Flashlight without giving it permission to know your location — we would have to advise you not to accept the update to 4.4.2,” Eckersley explains. “But this is also a catastrophic situation, because the update to Android 4.4.2 contains fixes to security and denial-of-service bugs. So, for the time being, users will need to chose between either privacy or security on the Android devices, but not both.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Here’s a better idea for Fragmandroid settlers who are tired of being personal data generators for Google: Just go get the iPhone you tried, but failed, to approximate and be done with it!

Life is best on iOS.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews readers too numerous to mention individually for the heads up.]

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    1. “So, for the time being, users will need to chose between either privacy or security on the Android devices, but not both.”

      This is, in some respects, a Morton’s fork – two bad options. In truth, however, you cannot choose between “privacy” and “security” in Android. With Android, you get neither, regardless of your theoretical “choice.” Open sure is great…


    Just a heads up. You may want to avoid this movie. It’s a 2 hour long Google commercial. Product placement taken to the extreme like I’ve never seen before.

    I like Vince Vaughn so I rented it last night from Apple TV. I don’t mind that they get hired as interns at the Google campus. Like others, I use Google products such as search, Gmail etc – I can deal with it. But the amount of pro-google, look how great a company we are, in-your-face, is simply astounding. Even if I owned an Android and Chromebook, I would be like really? I paid to watch this 120 minute long Google commercial. Really surprised that Vaughn agreed to act in this. Looks like he wrote the script as well so I guess he was willing to concede a lot of pride to get Google to go along with it.

    How was the move other than that?


    1. I’m sorry, that article is baloney. Even after you fix the charts to the same time frame, it’s clear there are far more devices stuck on old versions of Android than on old versions of iOS. Even on the most favorable version of the chart to Android shows 30% of devices running a version of the OS two releases old. In the iOS chart that number appears to be 10% or less.


  2. I think it’s hilarious that Google allegedly has privacy features while totally mining what you do. It’s like gmail where I’m sure they sell ads to people to put in your email, yet they tell you about their spam filtering. Ha!

  3. The majority of Android devices never had this feature to begin with so whats the problem?

    Seriously this effects what ? Only Nexus users?

    Everyone else is not on a current release anyway.

  4. I’m guessing the programer that came up with the App Ops privacy feature in the first place no longer works for Google.

    Android manager – “What the hell where you thinking blocking information?!?!? How do you think we make our living living?”

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