Google Android App Ops: It takes two to protect personal information

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

If an app doesn't work, research has shown consumers will be very quick to abandon it. They aren't interested in a developer's explanations--even if the explanation is that the failure is in part the consumer's own fault.

Therein lies the dilemma of a new feature added in Android 4.3 that I first learned about through a recent article by GigaOM's David Meyer. Called App Ops, it allows mobile users to selectively turn various permissions in an app on or off depending upon their privacy preferences. Obviously, as various government agencies and industry organizations grapple with a developer code of conduct and rules around mobile app transparency, this will be greeted with open arms by consumers.

"For many developers, however, it could prove an utter nightmare," Meyer notes. "In the quest for privacy or longer battery life, many users may turn off bits of functionality then later wonder why those elements of the app don't work. Apps will break all over the place, unless developers change their mindset."

The mindset he's referring to is described as "privacy by design," where consumers get all the details about data collection and usage upfront. This is obviously a best practice worth following, but it's easier said than done. One of the biggest challenges for any developer is fostering engagement as easily and as quickly as possible. Any step that gets in the way of users enjoying the app experience, however well-intentioned, could be seen as more of a barrier than a sign of respect for personal information.

App Ops needs to trigger a change not only in developers but also in users, who need to take a more proactive and interested role in managing the permissions they grant to third parties. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), in effect, is creating a catalyst for the "proactive" component, but genuine interest in privacy can be difficult unless a consumer is well-educated about the risk and has some knowledge of what it's like to have personal data misused.

Along with App Ops, it would be great to see some of the smart minds in the vendor community create some tools that could assist with this process. Maybe someone will make a sort of privacy and permissions tutorial that's as easy to digest as a six-second Twitter Vine video. Perhaps the industry could create some kind of labeling system that codifies the kinds of permissions an app requires, so consumers can easily decide whether those permissions fall within their comfort zone. Facebook and Google already have sophisticated menus for dealing with privacy settings on their platforms--more of that could become part of app store profiles as well.

Privacy, of course, involves trust, and that may be a short-term challenge developers could focus on. If a user has downloaded an app from a developer that took the time and effort to convey the implications of various permissions quickly and simply, I'll bet that consumer will be more likely to leave App Ops alone if they download something else from that developer. If both developers and consumers can demonstrate they care sufficiently about the protection of personal information, a feature like App Ops should barely be needed at all. --Shane