UPDATE: Google has removed a pivotal privacy feature from its Android operating system that gave users the ability to deny permissions in and regulate information collection attempts by installed applications.
The feature, which users could control with a tool called AppOps Launcher, first appeared in Android 4.3. Just two days ago the Electronic Frontier Foundation published an article heralding the short-lived privacy control as “a huge step in the right direction.”
“Despite being overdue and not quite complete, App Ops Launcher is a huge advance in Android privacy,” wrote EFF technology projects director Peter Eckersley. “Its availability means Android 4.3+ [is] a necessity for anyone who wants to use the OS while limiting how intrusive those apps can be.”
As it turns out, Google removed the feature in Android version 4.4.2, the mobile operating system’s most recent update. When asked why, Google told the EFF that the control was an experimental one which they introduced into Android by accident. Furthermore, the search giant claimed that the permission-throttling privacy feature was breaking some of the applications it attempted to manipulate.
In a comment on Google Plus, Google Android engineer Dianne Hackborn explained:
“That UI is (and it should be quite clear) not an end-user UI. It was there for development purposes. It wasn’t intended to be available. The architecture is used for a growing number of things, but it is not intended to be exposed as a big low-level UI of a big bunch of undifferentiated knobs you can twiddle. For example, it is used now for the per-app notification control, for keeping track of when location was accessed in the new location UI, for some aspects of the new current SMS app control, etc.”
Eckersley claims that Google opened up an enormous privacy hole by removing the feature; a hole that Android’s primary competitor, Apple’s iOS, reportedly sealed off years ago. In order to remedy the loss, Eckersley claims that Google must not only reenable the privacy control, but also add to it.
Users, he writes, should have the capacity to disable the collection of any trackable identifiers with a single control. Android should also empower users with the ability to cut off network access to any applications they choose in order to combat developers that would otherwise collect sensitive data frivolously.
The EFF was so enamored with the feature that it finds itself stuck in the middle regarding what users should do. On the one hand, privacy conscious users may want to avoid updating so that they can keep the feature. On the other hand, the Android 4.4.2 update resolved a nasty SMS-based denial of service vulnerability and other security issues as well.
“So, for the time being,” Eckersley wrote, “users will need to chose between either privacy or security on the Android devices, but not both.”