Android App Permissions: What Are You Agreeing To?

by Brandon Ackroyd - , Last Updated on November 9, 2015, Android, Buying Guides

Most of us like to kit out our smart phones with a full list of useful (or entertaining) apps, and most of us Android users do this by downloading apps through Google Play. You might have noticed that whenever you download a new app (and sometimes when you’re downloading an update) you get an App Permissions screen. Many of us just click yes without thinking, but you might be agreeing to something that you don’t want. That’s why we’re taking a look at those app permissions and what exactly they mean.

Um… What are Permissions Anyway?

We get pretty used to big corporations trying to take us for a ride, but Android app permissions are actually the complete opposite. This is Google making sure that you’re not being taken advantage of. If an app needs to do things such as connect to the internet or access your Bluetooth then Google thinks that you should know about it, and be able to make an informed decision. In some cases permissions aren’t really a big deal, but in others they might be.

Take for example a phone that you’re setting up for your child. Many games these days include in app purchases, and you might not want your kid having that option. Therefore it’s only fair that the app warns you BEFORE you download it that it contains these in app purchases. See how it works? So what kinds of information do you get?

What Permissions Do

Google has designed 17 different categories for permissions, some of which will be important for you, though others are more developer oriented. So let’s take a look at the full list so the next time you download an app you’ll know exactly what it’s doing:

  • In App Purchases as mentioned above, this means that the app contains options to buy things, popular in many games.
  • Cellular Data Settings the app can access and control 3G and 4G settings on your phone, generally used for apps that need online access (which is most of them).
  • Device and App Settings the app can access and read settings on your device or in other apps, such as web history or bookmarks, usually used when there are ads in an app that will then be personalised to you using this info.
  • Identity the app wants to know who you are, which accounts you have, etc., fairly common and not quite as scary as it sounds, it’s another way to personalise content towards you.
  • Calendar the app wants access to your calendar to get more info about you, this info may be used to send messages to other people, popular in social media apps and things like Meet Up, for example it will let people know that it’s your birthday.
  • Contacts wants access to the contacts on your phone, Facebook, for example, uses this so that you can automatically add new contacts as Facebook friends.
  • SMS the app has access to your SMS and MMS settings, messaging apps commonly request this permission as it allows them to centralise all your messages in one place.
  • Location the app wants to know where you are, maybe to give you location targeted ads, maybe simply so that it can show you where you are on a map, or how long it will take you to get home.
  • Phone the app wants access to your ability to make calls, again common in messaging apps, things like WhatsApp that allows you to call through the app rather than direct from your phone.
  • Camera the app wants access to your pictures or the ability to take pictures, popular for social media (where you might want a profile pic, for example).
  • Photos/Media/Files the app wants access to data stored on your phone, could be for various reasons but this is similar to the above in that you might want to get a pic from your phone into the app, or a track from your music player as your alarm signal.
  • Microphone the app wants to use your microphone, popular if you can call inside an app, or for some kinds of games where voice controls can be used.
  • Bluetooth Connection Information the app wants access to Bluetooth, used when a Bluetooth connection is necessary, for example for Android Wear apps and the like.
  • WiFi Connection Information the app wants access to your WiFi connection, generally because it needs an online connection maybe to show ads or just to synch with a desk top version of an app.
  • Wearable Sensors/Activity Data the app wants to connect with something else that’s connected to your phone, usually an Android Wear device.
  • Device ID and Call Information the app wants access to your phone calls, including the number that you’re speaking too, again mostly used for when you can make calls inside an app.
  • Other anything that’s not included in the above, but the specific need will be listed after the word other, usually for things like access to your Facebook or other social media accounts.

Why This is More Important than Ever

Up until now, at least with Android Lollipop, you’ve simply had a list of these permissions once you hit the download button in the Google Play Store. But with Android Marshmallow, app permissions have changed. Once you’ve upgraded you’ll also have individual app permissions. This means that when you download an app and open it it will have to ask you about each individual thing that it wants to use. For example, opening a camera app is going to have an “allow camera to use locations” pop up to let the app tag the photos you take as being taken in a specific location.

Okay, this sounds a little annoying, and it may well be at first, but it does mean that you know exactly what an app is accessing (providing you know what the names of the permissions mean, which is why we gave you the exhaustive list).

App permissions are a bit like agreeing to the terms and services on a website, most of us click yes without thinking. But they are about to become a lot more invasive in your apps, so it’s best to know what you’re agreeing to in the first place, particularly if you’re downloading apps from sources that you’re not too familiar with!