The Illusion of Privacy

The Article

My first Android phone was the Commando, and wow that thing was rugged.  A friend of mine also had one and it survived the full-frontal abuse from a teenager who even regularly took the phone swimming. I quickly determined smartphones have a very important role in our lives as busy people.  For the first time I was able to check email without booting up the computer.  I was also able to do some quick Internet searches on the go, and lets not forget about the games, or better yet, productive work we can do with the few spare minutes here and there throughout the day.

Smartphones are great tools for us in our daily life, but they also give us the ability to stay ‘too’ connected.  Remember the times we could take a leisurely walk without the chance of being disrupted by a rouge phone call?  Of course the extra connection is great for people with younger kids that may need to be reached at a moment by a caregiver, and I love the fact that I work in IT and I can connect my computers to my own personal on-the-go Internet securely when I am out meeting with clients.  As great as that is, I think that if I did not run an IT business, I would probably do without my smartphones merely as a way to simplify my life and stay a little less connected.

Most Americans are willing to keep a constant connection with the world in any case, and who are we to argue?  Certainly not me, as I find it to be a personal choice.  But what I do not like is that, regardless of our desires, our phones and the carriers use people’s desire to stay connected as a means to collect roving amounts of personal data.  Remember the Verizon supercookie debacle?  Some people are ignorant of the collection, others consider it a necessary evil in our current society, but some take a firm stand, enough so that many companies are listening to the desires for people to control their privacy.  Android, as of Marshmallow, has some built in privacy settings, but in my own personal examination of the privacy settings on the built-in apps is far from what I would call ‘control’.

Last winter I bought a Samsung Galaxy S5 for my business line.  At the time, Lolipop was the operating system and I was very happy with how the phone operated on that version of Android.  I loved the phone and I had no problems with how anything worked.  But then my carrier decided to push the Marshmallow update.  I did not want Marshmallow but I had no choice in the matter, so the phone upgraded.  I did not experience any noticeable performance issues other than much faster battery drain, but my camera stopped working correctly, which I was finally able to get resolved with a hard reboot.  But what I did see that interested me was new privacy settings in the application manager.  I was ecstatic that I could set some custom privacy settings, and so I went throughout the phone to change settings into what was comfortable for me.  Then I found that I could turn off certain settings, but then apps just would not work!  The case in point is the built in Gallery app to view photos.  If you check the privacy settings, the Gallery would like access to the following:

  • Calendar
  • Camera
  • Contacts
  • Location
  • Phone
  • SMS
  • Storage

I looked over the list and determined that I would like the system to have access to the storage so I can put the images on the SD card, and I also wanted the camera, to, ummm…take pictures?  But I turned everything off.  Then the next time I clicked the app to view some photos I received a popup:

Allow Gallery to access this device’s location?

I pressed deny.  I was then greeted with the same question for contacts and calendar.  I also denied those options because I intentionally turned them off.  The Gallery app then immediately closes.  The app cannot run unless all three of those privacy settings are turned on.

Lets think about this for a moment.  Android says on their official website:

Permissions your way

No need to give apps access all the time. Android Marshmallow lets you define what you want to share and when. Turn permissions off at any time, too.

So they are promoting that we can now turn off permissions!  Great.  Only thing though: when I turn off permissions and set them how I like, the app simply does not work!  Is this an error in the Gallery app or is this a way they give us the illusion of privacy?  I noticed similar behavior in the Calendar app, both built in applications.  I did not check them all, but I am still disturbed about this.  I hope these are just anomalies that will be  corrected, but until I see that happen I cannot help to wonder if the permission settings were implemented to give us the illusion of privacy.

My question for my readers is this: Are you minding your online privacy?  Do you read and understand the terms and conditions attached to your online accounts and Internet ready devices?  Do you stop to wonder what data is being collected not just by your devices, but also by the third party developers who make all of these apps?  We should always read the permissions that apps require and do not download an app that seems to need more permissions than seems reasonable.

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