The Google Play Store, Mobile App Privacy, New Changes
Last week, it was announced that Google’s Play Store would be doing away with its applications permissions list in favor of a new Safety Box feature that would place the onus on individual application developers to explain the privacy and data collection practices that a user would be subject to when downloading and utilizing a particular mobile application. While this move would have theoretically created an atmosphere of enhanced transparency and accountability between mobile application developers and the millions of users they serve around the world, it was instead met with widespread concern in practice, as the ability of technology companies to protect the personal information of individual people continues to be a mounting issue.
App permissions and privacy
The concept of mobile application permissions with respect to the personal privacy of the users of said applications is a tricky and nuanced subject. Despite the rise of online communication and mobile technology in recent years, there is still somewhat of a gap between the capabilities of a particular application or software service when compared to the manner in which the average consumer will actually use such an application or service in their daily lives. To illustrate this point further, although many applications will have to ask a user for permission to access their location or camera when using a specific feature within a particular application, this does not necessarily mean that the user in question cannot use the application at all if they deny such permissions.
Roe V. Wade
On top of this, the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, has resulted in a new interest in the manner in which mobile applications protect the data and personal information of their numerous users. As the use of location data within mobile applications pertaining to everything from fast food restaurants to large retail stores becomes increasingly more common due to recent advances in technology, consumers and government alike are asking for more accountability with regard to the ability of a user to turn off such services at their sole discretion. To this point, irrespective of any permissions that are specified within a mobile application store such as Google Play, there have been instances in recent years where users have alleged that an application continued tracking their location even when the feature had been turned off.
Staying on the subject of Google, the multinational corporation was accused of violating the data privacy rights of users around the world with respect to geolocation data in March of 2022. For example, Attorney General of Arizona (US), Mark Brnovic alleged that the company found “misleading ways to obtain information and use it for profit”, in spite of the fact that Google has countered such claims by stating that users have full control over the geolocation features within mobile applications at all times. To this end, Google has been reprimanded and fined multiple times during the past decade for failing to protect the privacy of its users, including in 2019, when it was revealed that the company had failed to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in regard to the unauthorized data tracking of children that were using the video creation and sharing website Youtube.
Google reverses course
Between Google’s recent data protection and privacy history, as well as the outrage that has been stirred in the past week after the company announced changes to the fashion in which mobile applications developers would be tasked with protecting the privacy of users, it was announced on July 21, 2022, that Google would be reimplementing the app permissions section of their Play Store. As stated on the Android Developers Twitter account “We heard your feedback that you find the app permissions section in Google Play useful, and we’ve decided to reinstate it. The app permissions section will be back shortly.” What’s more, Google has also stated that the company plans to maintain the Data Safety Box feature within the Play Store, effectively giving users two separate sources of information concerning the data collection, processing, storage, and disclosure practices of a given mobile application.
While data privacy fiascos are by no means a new development for companies that are operating on the scope and scale of Google, the fashion in which these issues have been handled in regard to the Play Store in recent weeks has been extremely interesting. While the change that Google intended to make to the Play Store could essentially be seen as changing the messenger as opposed to changing the message, the optics that were associated with such changes proved to be too much for the company to handle. This being said, while app permissions were not widely spoken about subjects just five years ago, people around the world are becoming more cognizant of the data they submit to businesses and companies when using technology services, be they online websites or mobile apps.