Apps, data usage and privacy – a change of topic

I’m a diehard fan of iOS, and rather fond of Mac OS X as well. That doesn’t stop me from investigating the alternatives on occasion. Thanks to Oracle’s VirtualBox, it’s a cinch to keep up to date with the basics for new Desktop OS’s, whether it’s a new version of Windows or an updated Linux distribution. Mobile OS’s, though, are a much bigger challenge to evaluate.

Every couple of years, I give Android a spin. The first time, I spent nearly a thousand dollars on a Motorola Atria  (along with it’s laptop dock – it just seemed so cool at the time), only to return them a month later   Usually, I just buy a prepaid phone and get a months worth of credit, just to see where things are at. I know I’m buying at the bottom of the price range, so I do my best to overlook shortcomings that would be erased if I spent the same amount on an Android phone as I do an iPhone, such as responsiveness, screen viewing, etc.

My current contract with my cell provider ends next month, and I’ve been dying to give T-Mobile a whirl, with their generous allotments of data in their plans, along with the fact that data consumption from leading media streaming services doesn’t count against your cap. Considering I’ve been limping along with a 2GB cap for the last two years, it sounds like a breath of fresh air.

Yesterday, I bought a new 4.5 inch Android at Target, along with a month of service from T-Mobile. The viewing angle of the screen is horrible – even looking at it from 5 degrees off center makes it look horrendous – but I’m aware if I bought a higher end Nexus or Galaxy, it would have a screen that’s on par with, or superior to, an iPhone screen.

Aside from T-Mobile’s free streaming, the fact that Apple has made a somewhat hobbled version of their music app available for Android was another reason I felt I should give Android a go, while evaluating T-Mobiles coverage.

And their coverage around here, is somewhat lacking. In town, it works great, but visiting a friends yesterday who lives at the bottom of a hill, I found I had no coverage there at all. However, T-Mobile (and I’m not sure if this feature is exclusive to them or not) lets you make calls over wifi, so once I was connected to the wifi, all was good.

Today, I took Apple Music on the road. Which was refreshing – I have a HUGE music library, but keep an extremely pared down playlist on my iPhone so as to be able to choose from a small selection of music without using up my data. Enter T-Mobile – the Apple app wouldn’t let me download my playlist to the phone, so all I could do was stream to and from work. Which to me, was amazing – rather than being stuck with “just” 700 songs, I had access to this much music:

itunes library size 2016-06-16

So… now that I’m done with the setup, I’ll get to my issue.

I noticed that my the sound output from Android’s headphone jack is significantly more quiet than my iPhone. It almost made me want to abandon android right then and there, but instead I pulled into a parking lot, hopped onto the Google Play store, and searched for a “sound booster” – (it actually took a few searches to find what I should be searching for).

Now this app, in my imagination, should be be very simple. A one trick pony. So, when I went to install the first result from my search, Volume Booster Pro, I was surprised to see it ask for permissions to:

  • read phone status and identity
  • read the contents of your USB storage
  • modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
  • read phone status and identity
  • view network connection
  • connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi

Seriously – all I want is more volume, not to have an app snooping through my files. Next was Volume Booster Plus (which is completely unrelated to the Pro version). This, too, wanted to received information from the internet and have full network access, in order to make my music louder. Soundbooster got nixed because their app wanted my precise GPS location.

I felt like I was striking out, but the next result restored my hope. Speaker Boost, by Omega Centauri Software, only requires permission to adjust my audio settings. It’s free and works like a charm.

This got me to thinking – how many people blindly accept the permissions their apps request without giving it a second thought? I prefer security – while I think it’s hopeless to try to hide from the NSA, I also have nothing to fear from them. However, when my data gets in the hands of advertisers and marketeers, they can impact me – if they know what I’m looking to buy at a given moment, the prices of those products could mysteriously increase – that’s a direct negative impact on my bottom line.

While I understand the grievances that some people have with the “Walled Garden” approach that Apple has taken with their App Store, certainly they have prevented the vast majority of virus’s and malware that has invaded the the Google Play Store on occasion. And while I’ll probably stick with my iPhone when I switch providers next month, I find myself still wanting to put forward a suggestion to Google:

Perhaps they could curate a portion of the Play Store. Or simply let us sort through apps based on how many permissions they require to run. In my case, Speaker Boost was the 4th search result, but required the fewest permissions (and nothing extraneous) to run – in my mind, should be a way to sort the results and have it come to the top of the list.

We’re in a new era –  data breaches aren’t exactly uncommon these days. And while we pay attention and act concerned when we hear that Target, the DNC and even the NSA get hacked, most of us continue to download apps and blindly agree to the broadest permission requests. And because many of us are ill-equipped (or just disinterested) in evaluating risks like this, the App marketplaces should do take steps to help protect their users from apps that could go rogue.

Oh – and incidentally – on my first day of not worrying about bandwidth usage, I used over 600 MB of data, nearly all from Apple Music (and therefore nothing to be worried about). I’m going to hold off my applause until I reach the 3GB soft limit so I can be sure that the streaming music isn’t impacting my data cap, but so far, it’s looking like T-Mobile is going to get a new customer!

That’s all. I’ve got a ton of ideas for articles that need to be finished, hopefully in the coming days we’ll see some arriving here and over at my friends solar website. Stay tuned.

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