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April 09, 2018

Don’t Give Up Your Contacts

When you give an app or social network access to your contacts, you are giving it access to your friends. You owe it to your friends to protect their privacy as best you can and hopefully they’ll do the same for you. Yes, there are some apps like email, messaging, and voice or video calling which have a legitimate need for contact information. Most don’t and they shouldn’t have access to it.

Yesterday was an all time personal high for unwarranted attempts to get at my contacts. I not only refused them all, I also returned a ring.com security system to Costco because, as soon as I downloaded the Android app needed to use it, the app refused to finish setup until I gave both it and Google Play Service access to both my microphone (maybe justified) and my contacts (not gonna happen). More below on the particularly dangerous Google Play Service.

Here are the attempts to get access which I remember yesterday:

  1. The Android Amazon Alexa app which wouldn’t even let me see the shopping list I had dictated until I told it who my contacts are so I can use Alexa to call them. I don’t want to use Alexa for calling but there wasn’t even a “later” button. Got around it by quitting the app (also not easy to do) and restarting it.
  2. My Garmin vivoactive HR It wants to tell me about email, texts, and calls when I’m hiking. I told it to concentrate on getting my pulse right.
  3. Facebook on my PC (I don’t allow it on my phone). It told me for the zillionth time that I’d have more friends if I’d just upload my contacts. I’m not about to do that to my friends.
  4. LinkedIn on my PC told me I’d get a fabulous job offer soon if I’d only upload my contacts. No thanks; I’m retired. And I wouldn’t hire anyone who uploaded me to LinkedIn.
  5. And the ring.com app.

The ring.com app didn’t ask to use my contacts and microphone directly; it just told me that it couldn’t even set itself up unless I gave Google Play Services access to these things. What is Google Play Services? Google Play Services is a good technical idea gone astray (or rogue). It manages downloads from the Google Play Store and updates (fine); Google says “with Google Play Services, you can authenticate Google services, synchronize your contacts, access the latest user privacy settings, and use higher quality location-based services that use less energy.” What they don’t say directly on the download page is that apps like ring.com which use Google Play Services also apparently get access to what Google Play Services has access to. If I had previously allowed Google Play Services to access my contacts, then ring.com could have gotten access without asking me. Not good and not gonna happen

In continuing my search for security cameras, I’ve been sending a question to tech support at the camera company websites asking what permissions their apps require. So far I’ve gotten no answers but it is still the weekend. I’ve also downloaded some apps to see whether they want me to give permissions I don’t want to give. That’s a pain. App stores ought, as a matter of course, to list all the permissions an app will need if you download it. I’d like to see this information on packaging and online descriptions for all products with their own apps. I don’t want a home security system at the expense of my friends’ online security.

I’m not waiting for the government to manage my privacy for me; I’m not at all sure I want that. We can make online privacy better by being informed consumers and – above all – not compromising the security of our friends by broadcasting our contacts.

See CC’ing Will Get Your Friends Speared for how and why to protect your friends when sending email to a list;

Don’t Believe Caller ID for how exposing your contacts can help scammers effectively scam your friends;

Alexa: The End of a Great Relationship and Your Android Phone is Eavesdropping for my growing paranoia about the Internet of listening things.

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