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Thursday, 01 November 2012 17:01

Mobile app downloads doubling, privacy & identity risks rise


Mobile app downloads are doubling and the apps are getting “smarter”, but the cost to users may well be a threat to their privacy and the potential sharing of their personal information across the entire application ecosystem with the likes of app developers and advertising networks.

In a report just released, Juniper Networks’ Mobile Threat Centre says it analysed over 1.7 million apps on the Google Play market from March 2011 to September 2012 and found that a worrying number of apps contained “permissions and capabilities that could expose sensitive data or access device functionality that the apps don’t necessarily need.”

Pointing out that mobile devices and applications are no longer an accessory – they’re central to our daily lives, and that apps “make our lives easier,” Juniper cites a Gartner report that the number of mobile apps downloaded will double to 45 billion this year – and that the apps are “only getting smarter.” 

Today’s apps, according to Chief Mobile Security Evangelist at Juniper Networks, Dan Hoffman,  are increasingly essential to accessing critical business applications, connecting with friends on the go and even adopting digital wallets.

“While these apps make our lives easier, they also give a wider group of application developers and advertising networks the ability to collect information about our activities and leverage the functionality of our devices.

“At the same time the companies, consumers and government employees who install these apps often do not understand with who and how they are sharing personal information. Even though a list of permissions is presented when installing an app, most people don’t understand what they are agreeing to or have the proper information needed to make educated decisions about which apps to trust,” Hoffman warns.  

According to Hoffman, more concerning is that many apps collect information or require permissions unnecessary for the described functionality of the app. He says this is not the first time this issue has surfaced, with reports of popular apps collecting irrelevant information or transmitting data when devices are turned off leading to significant backlash.

Juniper reports that, while it found a significant number of applications contained permissions and capabilities that could expose sensitive data or access device functionality that it might not need, it also determined these apps had permission to access the Internet, which Hoffman says could provide a means for “exposed data to be transmitted from the device.”

“Of particular interest, free applications were much more likely to access personal information than paid applications. Specifically, free apps are 401 percent more likely to track location and 314 percent more likely to access user address books than their paid counterparts.

On the issue of advertising tracking, Juniper reports that when looking at the disparity between free versus paid apps, there was a common industry assumption that free apps collected information in order to serve ads from third-party ad networks.

While this is true in some cases,” explains Hoffman, “Juniper examined 683,238 application manifests and found the percentage of apps with the top five ad networks is much less than the total number tracking location (24.14 percent).”

Juniper also studied the potential for misuse of permissions, leading Hoffman to comment: “Possibly more concerning are the other permissions being requested from applications, like the ability to clandestinely initiate outgoing calls, send SMS messages and use a device camera.”

“An application that can clandestinely initiate a phone call could be used to silently listen to ambient conversations within hearing distance of a mobile device. Similarly, access to the device camera could enable a third party to obtain video and pictures of the area where the device is present, as was recently presented with the proof-of-concept Spyware PlaceRaider.

“Silently sending SMS messages can also be a means to create a covert channel for siphoning sensitive information from a device. Further, the potential for stealth SMS messages or calls can have monetary repercussions by communicating with services that will subsequently charge a fee, such as calling a 1-900 in the US or sending premium SMS messages.”

Juniper concludes that its analysis of the Google Play market shows the “pervasiveness of mobile tracking and where apps could do a better job of disclosing why they need information up front and highlight functionality as a genuine user benefit.”

Hoffman says it is Juniper’s hope is its research can give a better understanding of the current state of application privacy and “provide insight to ensure the best actionable information is available to understand the effects on user privacy and the protection of enterprise data.”

Juniper offers up several suggestions which it says the industry should consider:

•    Correlate permissions to actual app functionality. Simply saying an app has the permission to track location, read contacts or silently perform an outgoing call doesn’t provide the necessary context of why this functionality is necessary for a specific app. Providing a means to  communicate how permissions align with how the app works would help address this item.

•    Better differentiate between permissions. There is a big difference between a Spyware app clandestinely placing an outgoing call to listen to ambient conversations within hearing distance of the device, and a financial app that provides the convenience of calling local branches from within an application. The manner in which permissions are currently presented does not provide a means for users to differentiate between the two. More needs to be done to provide developers with differentiated permissions and to perform the very different actions.

•    Accept some exposure with free apps. It seems there is no such thing as a free lunch in mobile. If people choose to use free applications, they will likely need to provide information in exchange. Often times, the value provided by the app is well worth the information given up by a user; however, many do not realize that this tracking is happening and may not be making informed choices. Communicating why information is needed in a concise and easy-to-understand means could help people become more comfortable with sharing.

•    A smaller amount of actionable data is beneficial.  Helping people understand what is actually occurring on their device and with their data has considerably more value than a list of permissions. More educated users means they are more comfortable installing apps and less likely to uninstall once they see the number of permissions being requested without explanation.

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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham - retired in 2020. He is a veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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