Android app developers intentionally delayed updating their applications to work on top of Android 6.0, so they could continue to have access to an older permission-requesting mechanism that granted them easy access to large quantities of user data, research published by the University of Maryland last month has revealed.
The central focus of this research was the release of Android (Marshmallow) 6.0 in October 2015. The main innovation added in Android 6.0 was the ability for users to approve app permissions on a per-permission basis, selecting which permissions they wanted to allow an app to have.
Google gave app makers three years to update
As the Android ecosystem grew, app developers made a habit of releasing apps that requested a large number of permissions, many of which their apps never used, and which many developers were using to collect user data and later re-selling it to analytics and data tracking firms.
This changed with the release of Android 6.0; however, fearing a major disruption in its app ecosystem, Google gave developers three years to update their apps to work on the newer OS version.
This meant that despite users running a modern Android OS version — like Android 6, 7, or 8 — apps could declare themselves as legacy apps (by declaring an older Android Software Development Kit [SDK]) and work with the older permission-requesting mechanism that was still allowing them to request blanket permissions.
In research published in June, two University of Maryland academics say they conducted tests between April 2016 and March 2018 to see how many apps initially coded to work on older Android SDKs were updated to work on the newer Android 6.0 SDK.
The research duo says they installed 13,599 of the most popular Android apps on test devices. Each month, the research team would update the apps and scan the apps’ code to see if they were updated for the newer Android 6.0 release.
“We find that an app’s likelihood of delaying upgrade to the latest platform version increases with an increase in the ratio of dangerous permissions sought by the apps, indicating that apps prefer to retain control over access to the users’ private information,” said Raveesh K. Mayya and Siva Viswanathan, the two academics behind the research.
Additional details about this research can be found in a white paper named “Delaying Informed Consent: An Empirical Investigation of Mobile Apps’ Upgrade Decisions” that was presented in June at the 2019 Workshop on the Economics of Information Security in Boston.