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  • Author: Daniel Smullen x
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In today’s data-centric economy, data flows are increasingly diverse and complex. This is best exemplified by mobile apps, which are given access to an increasing number of sensitive APIs. Mobile operating systems have attempted to balance the introduction of sensitive APIs with a growing collection of permission settings, which users can grant or deny. The challenge is that the number of settings has become unmanageable. Yet research also shows that existing settings continue to fall short when it comes to accurately capturing people’s privacy preferences. An example is the inability to control mobile app permissions based on the purpose for which an app is requesting access to sensitive data. In short, while users are already overwhelmed, accurately capturing their privacy preferences would require the introduction of an even greater number of settings. A promising approach to mitigating this trade-off lies in using machine learning to generate setting recommendations or bundle some settings. This article is the first of its kind to offer a quantitative assessment of how machine learning can help mitigate this trade-off, focusing on mobile app permissions. Results suggest that it is indeed possible to more accurately capture people’s privacy preferences while also reducing user burden.


The app economy is largely reliant on data collection as its primary revenue model. To comply with legal requirements, app developers are often obligated to notify users of their privacy practices in privacy policies. However, prior research has suggested that many developers are not accurately disclosing their apps’ privacy practices. Evaluating discrepancies between apps’ code and privacy policies enables the identification of potential compliance issues. In this study, we introduce the Mobile App Privacy System (MAPS) for conducting an extensive privacy census of Android apps. We designed a pipeline for retrieving and analyzing large app populations based on code analysis and machine learning techniques. In its first application, we conduct a privacy evaluation for a set of 1,035,853 Android apps from the Google Play Store. We find broad evidence of potential non-compliance. Many apps do not have a privacy policy to begin with. Policies that do exist are often silent on the practices performed by apps. For example, 12.1% of apps have at least one location-related potential compliance issue. We hope that our extensive analysis will motivate app stores, government regulators, and app developers to more effectively review apps for potential compliance issues.