Today, 68% of Americans own a smartphone of some kind and an increasing number of digital interactions occur within the context of mobile apps. Apps (short for “applications”) are programs that users can download to their smartphone or tablet computer. They can serve a nearly unlimited range of functions — from simple tools like a calculator to advanced digital assistants. They allow users to tailor their powerful pocket computer into a device with hundreds of potential uses that meet their owners’ specific needs.
In order to function, apps may require access to both the capabilities of the devices they reside on as well as the user information contained on those devices. As users go about their lives, their mobile devices produce a vast trove of personal information and data, ranging from the user’s location to a history of his or her phone calls or text message interactions. This puts apps at the center of debates about privacy in the digital age.
All of this information can be crucial to the functioning of mobile apps. But actually accessing a device’s data or capabilities requires app developers to request it from end users in one way or another – often by asking users to click through an “I accept” box. Permissions are the mechanism by which app developers disclose how their apps will interact with users’ devices and personal information on devices running Google’s Android operating system.
Once that permission is granted, the apps can amass insights from the data collected by the apps on things such as the physical activities and movements of users, their browsing and media-use habits, their social media use and their personal networks, the photos and videos they shoot and share, and their core communications. A newly released Pew Research Center survey from February 2015 finds that users place significant emphasis on how much information their apps collect from them: 90% of app users indicate that having clear information about how apps will access or use their personal data is “very” or “somewhat” important to them when deciding to download an app. Fully 60% of apps users have chosen to not download an app after discovering how much personal information the app required.
Clearly users are concerned about the information their apps require, but less is known about what is happening on the other side of the transaction — the permissions and capabilities that apps are most likely to ask for.