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The research paper, which is the first of its kind to systematically detail the full extent of the privacy and security risks of the pre-installed apps on Android devices, has already attracted the attention of European regulators.In fact, the research team is now working with the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) in order to disseminate this study of Android system apps far and wide.Thus, this is not going to be the typical academic study that shows up online for a few weeks before disappearing into the ether.
In some cases, pre-installed Android apps are running in the background without the user’s knowledge, and making it otherwise impossible to disable apps found on the home screen.
As a broad, overarching theme for the report, say the researchers, these pre-installed apps on Android phones represent a threat to user privacy.
And each device manufacturer works with a complex network of vendors and partners, so it is unclear whether regulators would choose to go after Google (and its Android OS), or whether they would choose to go after some of the more aggressive developers of pre-installed apps on Android phones.
The researchers specifically mentioned that the current ecosystem represents a “peril” to user privacy and security, so clearly something needs to be done sooner rather than later to protect Android phone users.
Moreover, many of the pre-installed apps on Android are laced with malware, which represents a potential security threat to the user.
The research paper, prepared by a team of academics at IMDEA Networks Institute, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Stony Brook University, and the ICSI at Berkeley, provides a comprehensive survey of more than 82,000 apps found on 1,742 devices from 214 different brands.This data can include sensitive geo-location data, as well as personally identifiable information based on access to email or phone address books on the Android device.One particular privacy issue pointed out by the researcher was the prevalent use of third-party libraries (also known as Software Development Kits, or SDKs) within the pre-installed apps on Android phones.They give access to very intrusive permissions, such as the ability to access information about which other apps you are using or downloading.They also collect and send data back to advertisers and analytics firms.There is, indeed, an entire ecosystem of pre-installed apps on Android, and many questions to ask about apps notifications, settings for apps, and ways to force stop apps from gaining access to personal data.At the very least, removing apps from the home screen or apps drawer should be a lot easier than it is now.In general, SDKs are very popular within the mobile developer world, because they make it possible to build apps much more quickly than if the developer had to “reinvent the wheel.” So the issue, say the researchers, is not that they found these third-party libraries within Android apps.The issue is that so many of these libraries seem to be related to advertising and user tracking.What makes things difficult for regulators, though, is the fact that Android is an open source OS.Each of the 214 brands studied by the researchers, presumably, are using a slightly different version of Android.