Google's bizarre and patronizing reversal on Android app controls

Privacy? Credit: flickr photo by ollografik

Google last week gave a master class in how to alienate users and reinforce the kind of negative perceptions about Android that have slowed its adoption in the enterprise.

It began last Wednesday when the Electronic Frontier Foundation -- one of the staunchest critics of online companies that invade our privacy -- gushed about search giant Google providing Android users with a tool that enables them to select which permissions to allow when downloading an app:

"Despite being overdue and not quite complete, App Ops Launcher is a huge advance in Android privacy. Its availability means Android 4.3+ a necessity for anyone who wants to use the OS while limiting how intrusive those apps can be. The Android team at Google deserves praise for giving users more control of the data that others can snatch from their pockets."

The lovefest, however, was short-lived. One day later:

"A moment ago, it looked as though Google cared about this massive privacy problem. Now we have our doubts."

Those doubts were created because Google disabled Apps Ops in Android 4.2.2, a KitKat update released last week. The EFF was unaware of this until it was pointed out by a couple of readers.

Google's reason for the reversal is lame and, honestly, slightly patronizing. The EFF reports that "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."

And in a Google+ conversation with developers, Android engineer Dianne Hackborn said, "The current UI is definitely not something that is appropriate for end users; it is mostly for platform engineers, maybe someday for third-party developers."

It’s unfortunate that Google believes users are incapable of handling the awesome responsibility of deciding whether a flashlight app should know their location, but I -- along with the EFF’s Peter Eckersley and, I'm guessing, millions of Android users -- have to disagree.

A few months back I wrote about the outrageous permissions approvals required by apps before they can be downloaded by users. I caught some flak for it, but I stand by my opinion, and I know I’m not alone. Here’s Andrew Livingston, digital policy manager for Sony Pictures Entertainment, replying to Android’s Hackborn:

“Permissions in Android is completely broken -- it’s shameful on Google that they don’t have this essential security feature as a user facing proposition, and your desperate attempts to break it for users really makes the entire platform worse. Shame on you.”

Strong words, but Livingston has a point. Clearly the technology exists for Android users to have granular control of apps permissions, and clearly many Android users want exactly that. Yet Google deems it not "appropriate" for end users, which includes millions of enterprise workers who aren't able to choose whether to refuse specific permissions from apps, including whether those apps can access contacts, use the device's camera and video without notifying the user, make phone calls or send messages, and many other activities totally irrelevant to the operation of the app.

In urging Google to reenable the App Ops interface, the EFF's Eckersley writes, "the right thing to do there is obvious." Given Google's fundamental business model -- collecting and monetizing user data -- it's equally obvious that it's probably not going to happen.

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