One of the aspects of mobile apps that make them great is that they have the ability to use some of your phone’s native features like its camera and its contact list. Our American Folk Festival app, for instance, allows users to take photos that can be submitted to the Festival for use in a Facebook album. If you have a gaming app, you may want the app to access your contacts to see if anyone else you know is willing to take part in a head-to-head matchup.
Recently there’s been some controversy surrounding Facebook’s push of its Messenger app for chatting with friends. Some users have noticed that it asks to do a lot – record audio, take photos, and more – and some posts go so far as to say that it might record ambient audio or take random photos without your permission.
This is a good time to take a look at app permissions. Each app has its own set of actions it wants to take with your phone, like the examples above. App developers use these permissions to allow their app to access parts of your phone’s operating system (for example, iOS or Android). And despite what you may read, you have control over what your phone’s apps can access.
iOS 7 lays out a few categories for feature access, including photos, microphone, and geolocation. When an app first requests access to one of these areas, you’ll see a prompt asking whether you’d like to allow access. If you do, you can turn access off later (or see a list of apps that use that permission) by going into the Settings app, tapping Privacy, and then looking at the permission you’d like to control. If you don’t want the Messenger app to access your microphone, for instance, go into the Microphone area and toggle the line for the Messenger app.
When you first install an Android app, you’ll see a list of permissions it requests. It’s important to note that if you have auto-updating turned on, updates to the app may add related permissions without asking you first, but you’ll still be prompted about any major permission changes before the update occurs. At this time there doesn’t seem to be a convenient way to control apps on a per-permission basis like there is in iOS, though this feature is hidden in some of the latest versions of Android and may be made public at some point.
It’s also worth noting that once you allow access to a permission for an app, whether it’s on install in Android or after a prompt in iOS, the app can use it in some cases without your knowledge – so there is some level of trust needed. As with all software, be careful of its source!