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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  How to stop Android apps from becoming a privacy risk

How to stop Android apps from becoming a privacy risk

Android apps can be a massive potential privacy risk, and here is how you can deal with that hassle

Read up on the user reviews of any app before downloading. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/MintPremium
Read up on the user reviews of any app before downloading. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Downloading a new app on your smartphone can be a source of some serious headache, particularly if you have been downloading apps from unverified sources (all those promises of letting you download paid apps for free, for example). Google’s Android smartphone users are more vulnerable than Apple’s iOS or Microsoft’s Windows Phone users, as suggested by some of the recent reports on mobile apps and the risks involved.

A report by Trend Micro published on 22 June claimed that 90% of all Android devices are affected by a new family of malware called Godless. This malware operates by rooting the OS without the user’s knowledge so it can assume control over the phone and install unwanted apps on the phone. Trend Micro warned that the potential carrier apps of Godless are in fact available for download on Google’s official Play Store. Another report by Symantec’s Norton anti-virus team, released on 28 June, points to the privacy risk of using an app. According to Norton Mobile Survey, 50% of all Indian smartphone users allowed access to their phone’s contacts, and other valuable mobile data to just any app, while 40% even allowed access to their phone’s camera. The report adds to the growing body of studies which belive the user’s self-indulgence is more often to be blamed for such risks.

If you are someone who downloads a lot of apps on your smartphone, even if it is to just experience them, here is what you need to be extra careful about.

App permissions

Every time one downloads an app from the Play Store, the app shows a screen first, which shows what all the app is going to access on the user’s phone. This may not be a typical security risk, but is certainly a major privacy risk because it lets the app access hardware and data on your phone, which it may or may not necessarily require. For users who still have Android Lollipop or older version of Android running on their phone, there is little that one can do about it. The only things one can do is read the list of access carefully and if one feels any of them is unwanted then it’s best to not download the app. From the newer Android Marshmallow onwards, users can use a feature called App permissions, which lets you control whether every app individually has access to the camera, the phone’s microphone, contacts etc. Some custom UI on Android phones may have these features built in the system, even if their phones run older version of Android.

Download from trusted stores only

With the growing number of users, the number of unofficial and third-party app stores has also increased. A few smartphones come with their own app stores as well. They entice users by offering discounts, or free apps which are otherwise paid on original Google stores. App downloaded from anywhere other than the original Google Play Store can be potential risk, as these stores often do not verify the apps for security, privacy and malware issues. Users should also be wary about side-loading apps by downloading an apk file from just any website, and then installing it on their phone. These are even more dangerous as one doesn’t know if someone has tinkered with the basic code of the app, and what all damage it can actually cause.

Do not fall for rooting

Android, as it is, limits user access to certain system files. This has led to the increasing popularity of something known as “rooting", where third party tools break that software lock, allowing users to make changes to the software that were otherwise not allowed. This is also known as privileged access. Besides the fact that it annuls the phone warranty, it also poses a serious security risk, because it overrides the security restriction put by the software developer as well as the manufacturer of the phone. As a result, such devices are more vulnerable to malware, spyware and Trojans than a regular Android device. While we do not recommend rooting an Android phone, but if you still have, the best recourse would be to install a reliable anti-virus to at least be able to keep an eye on any potential malware that could make its way in, over time.

And finally, something very basic, but most often overlooked—read up on the user reviews of any app before downloading. If the others are claiming the app has issues, it’s better to stay away.

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Abhijit Ahaskar
Abhijit writes on tech policy, gaming, security, AI, robotics, electronics and startups. He has been in the media industry for over 12 years.
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Published: 29 Jun 2016, 01:14 PM IST
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