Android lets apps secretly access and transmit your photos

Writing in the NYT's BITS section, Brian X. Chen and Nick Bilton describe a disturbing design-flaw in Android: apps can access and copy your private photos, without you ever having to grant them permission to do so. Google says this is a legacy of the earlier-model phones that used removable SD cards, but it remains present in current versions. To prove the vulnerability's existence, a company called Loupe made an Android app that, once installed, grabbed your most recent photo and posted it to Imgur, a public photo-sharing site. The app presented itself as a timer, and users who installed it were not prompted to grant access to their files or images. A Google spokesperson quoted in the story describes the problem, suggests that the company would be amenable to fixing it, but does not promise to do so.

Ashkan Soltani, a researcher specializing in privacy and security, said Google’s explanation of its approach would be “surprising to most users, since they’d likely be unaware of this arbitrary difference in the phone’s storage system.” Mr. Soltani said that to users, Google’s permissions system was ”akin to buying a car that only had locks on the doors but not the trunk.”

I think that this highlights a larger problem with networked cameras and sensors in general. The last decade of digital sensors -- scanners, cameras, GPSes -- has accustomed us to thinking of these devices as "air-gapped," separated from the Internet, and not capable of interacting with the rest of the world without physical human intervention.

But increasingly these things are networked -- we carry around location-sensitive, accelerometer-equipped A/V recording devices at all times (our phones). Adding network capability to these things means that design flaws, vulnerabilities and malicious code can all conspire to expose us to unprecedented privacy invasions. Unless you're in the habit of not undressing, going to the toilet, having arguments or intimate moments, and other private activities in the presence of your phone, you're at risk of all that leaking online.

It seems to me that neither the devices' designers nor their owners have gotten to grips with this yet. The default should be that our sensors don't broadcast their readings without human intervention. The idea that apps should come with take-it-or-leave-it permissions "requests" for access to your camera, mic, and other sensors is broken. It's your device and your private life. You should be able to control -- at a fine-grained level -- the extent to which apps are allowed to read, store and transmit facts about your life using your sensors.

Et Tu, Google? Android Apps Can Also Secretly Copy Photos