Android’s Permissions System, Explained
Permissions can be a confusing mess on Android, but fortunately Google has made them much easier to understand and control in modern versions of the operating system.
In the old days, whenever you installed an application from the Play Store, you’d be asked to blanket-accept permissions the app needed to run–such as write to the storage in order to save preferences, or monitor the state of phone calls so that it pauses when someone calls you.
Now, however, when you install an app, no permissions are granted–instead, each one has to be given when the app needs it. For example, Facebook requires no permissions when you install it, but as soon as you want to upload and image, you’ll have to grant it access to the device’s internal storage. (You only need to do this once–not every time you upload an image.) That way, if there are features you don’t use, the app won’t have access to certain parts or features of the device. It’s a really simple but effective way of managing permissions.
The following are many of the permissions you will find many apps will request (though there are more). If there is anything you may have a question about that we don’t cover here, we recommend you do a search or ask How-To Geek in the comments before proceeding with your install.
- Camera: Simply, an app can control your camera and take pictures. We’d say this is something you might want to pay a moderate amount of attention to if you’re using an app for which there’s no reasonable need for it to use the camera. Use common sense here and you should be fine.
- Read phone state: this permission exists to allow an app to determine whether it should pause when you take a phone call. Think of how Pandora or other streaming music apps pause automatically when the phone rings, and you’ll see that it has this permission. This permission can also be used to identify your phone and some app developers use this permission to ensure their product isn’t being pirated. In any event, keep an eye on this even though it’s largely harmless.
- Fine (GPS) location: This will allow apps to pinpoint (fine) location. You probably already use this in map and navigation apps, or other apps that require location services, like Pokémon Go.
- Coarse (network-based) location: Nearly identical to GPS, only less precise (coarse).
- Call phone: Ask yourself what the application does. Is it a dialer, or some such other app that needs to make phone calls? The real risk here is that an application could use your phone to call a service that then charges you money. Just know that this is one of those permissions you really need to pay attention to.
- Send SMS or MMS: Similar to above, in that a rogue app could conceivably send texts on your behalf such as signing you up for services that you don’t want. Again, pay attention to this one.
- Read or Write External Storage: There’s nothing unusual about an application needing to access your device’s storage. Where else are you going to store your photos and texts? But, with great power comes great responsibility, and this permission has the potential to wreak great damage. So make sure you trust the app.
- Read calendar data, write calendar data: Pay attention to this one. Obviously, if the app has a need to know and modify your calendar, then it’s no problem. But it could be a perfect way for a rogue app to discover your schedule and other personal data. If it doesn’t seem like a necessary feature for the app in question, think hard about granting it.
- Read contacts, write contacts: This one is very important. You don’t want to grant permission willy-nilly here. This constitutes a serious privacy issue if a rogue app can access your contacts. Pay attention to this one and make sure the app you’re installing is legitimate and really needs to access your contacts.
For the most part, all this boils down to common sense: if a permission seems directly related to a feature in the app, there’s a good reason it’s requesting it. If not, something might be fishy.
Your Play Store Apps
Tap the upper-left corner of the Play Store to access a slide-out menu. Here you’ll see a couple of actions related to apps: Apps & Games, and My Apps & Games. This is also where you’ll find Google Play’s categories, like Movies & TV, Music, Books, and Newsstand.
If you tap “My Apps & Games,” you’ll be take directly to a list of all the apps you’ve installed from the Play Store, which is where you can update them if needed.
If you tap on an app, you’ll get the option to uninstall it, open it, or–if there’s an update available–update it.
Back in the Play Store menu, the rest of your account info is just below the category list: Account, Redeem, Send gift, Whishlist, and Settings.
The two important options here are Account and Settings.
Account is where you’ll manage your payment methods, family plan (if applicable), regular subscriptions that are processed through the Play Store, any pending rewards you may have waiting, and view your purchase history.
Each of these categories is pretty self-explanatory, aside from maybe the “family” option. This is where you’ll manage who is part of your family, as well as have granular control of which applications, movies/TV shows, and books are shared across your family library.
The Settings section of Google Play lets you decide if, among other things, apps notify you when there are updates, whether apps auto-update, and if new apps auto-add widgets to the home screen. This last part can be a concern if you experience home screen lag (explained in Lesson 4) or you may simply not want apps automatically adding stuff to your home screen without your input.
This is also where you can set Parental Controls, as well as the option to require authentication for purchases in the Play Store. That can be a big one if you let a little one play with your phone.
Managing Your Applications from the Apps Settings Screen
To assume total control over the apps installed on your device, though, you need to use Android’s Settings menu, not the Play Store’s. You can access App Settings by pulling the notification shade down and pressing the cog icon, then navigating to “Apps.” It’s worth noting that on Samsung devices, this setting is found under Applications > Application Manager.
When you first open the “Apps” settings page, you see your apps displayed in alphabetical order, along with how much space each one is taking up.
By default, system apps are hidden. These can be displayed by tapping the three-button overflow menu, then selecting “Show system.” They can be hidden again by doing the same process.
Tap on any app to open its “app info” screen. Here you are given all the details you need about this app: the amount of storage it’s using, data used from a certain date, granted permissions, allowed notifications, default settings, how much battery it has used since the last charge, and how much memory (or RAM) it’s currently using.
Tapping each option will provide more information and available actions. For example, tapping the “Storage” option will allow you to delete the app’s data, effectively resetting it to “new,” as well as delete any stored cache files.
Clearing an app’s data is a surefire way to free up storage space, but caveats abound. In many cases, clearing data can undo personalizations and other simple things like sign-in information. So for example, if you clear the data from the Facebook app, you will have to sign back in the next time you launch the app.
Cache data, on the other hand, is fairly safe to delete; however, bear in mind that when you use that app again in the future, it will just fill that cache back up. (That also means if you’re on a limited data plan, it will eat into your monthly allotment.) Music streaming apps like Google Play Music or Spotify are notorious for storing a couple of gigabytes of data (read: played songs) in the cache, so if you’re in a pinch for space, this is a good place to start.
For the most part, though, clearing the cache is more of a tool to troubleshoot misbehaving apps, rather than freeing up storage.
Speaking of misbehaving apps, you’ll also want to look at the two butotns at the top of the App info page: Uninstall and Force Stop.
While the first setting is self-explanatory, there are a couple of reasons why you would want to use the latter option. Let’s say you notice an app that won’t close, or you have an app that’s using an abnormal amount of resources or sucking your battery dry. Forcing it to stop can be a preferable option to restarting your device, if only to see if that particular app is the troublemaker.
It’s also worth noting that for system apps–things that were pre-installed out of the box–you may not see an “Uninstall” option, but rather a “Disable” option. This does exactly what you think it does: renders the app useless and removes its entries from the app drawer and home screens.
No, you’re not technically uninstalling the app–it’s still on your device, occupying storage space, but it’s no longer accessible to your system and it will disappear from your app tray, which is a great way to get rid of pre-installed apps you don’t want (I’m looking at you, Samsung).
With this lesson, we have given you the knowledge to easily manage your apps without needing to download a single add-on app. By being able to control app activity and their associated shortcuts, you can help ensure your Android experience is smooth and clutter free. You also can now take control of your app permissions and make better, more informed decisions about what you install.
In the next lesson, we will talk at length about how to best prolong your devices battery life and hopefully allow it to, at the very least, last the day.