Microphone, location and photos: what do app permissions mean?

In addition to standard features such as a phonebook, contact lists, access to the Internet and weather forecasts, apps add many more features to the smartphone. Often, the newly installed apps also ask for permissions, which unsettle smartphone owners.

With Apple’s iOS and newer Android versions, users can decide for themselves what is allowed. But what does it mean when an app wants to use the microphone or read the contact list?

Microphone

Apps that require access to a smartphone’s microphone are often suspected by users of allowing strangers to eavesdrop. "Basically, there are several good reasons why an app needs the microphone", says Alexander Spier from the trade magazine "c’t". "For example, voice calls, voice search, music recognition, spoken messages and so on." Denying microphone access can cripple some apps.

To be on the safe side, Spier recommends: "You should check whether an app has a good reason for requesting the microphone right."A messenger app might have a good reason, but a flashlight app might not. When in doubt, it’s better to leave a program alone.

Location

Many apps require access to one’s location and even the pre-installed smartphone Internet browser regularly asks for it. "Location sharing can certainly have its usefulness and justification, depending on the purpose," says Julian Graf from the consumer advice center in North Rhine-Westphalia. For example, for map services or for location-based information, such as weather, stops in the vicinity or as a driving aid for the cab ordered.

Traffic app

In addition to using the data for a specific function of the app, however, location data can also be used for motion profiling – for example, for customized advertising. Therefore, the question here is also: does the app really need this data and does it inform about the data usage? If there is no information on this, Graf advises against using an app as a precautionary measure.

Contacts

Phone or SMS apps need this access so that you can select contacts, create new ones or edit existing ones. Messenger apps like Whatsapp or Signal use this to determine which contact is also using the program. Timetable apps can access your contacts to find the fastest way to "Mutti", for example determine if mom’s address is stored.

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Microphone, location and photos: what do app permissions mean?

While in the case of the phone app you can’t do without contact access, things can be different with some messengers. It is not entirely clear which entries Whatsapp uploads from the address books, what happens to them and how the data is secured – the service does not work without address book access either. Here users have to weigh up. However, if a program asks for access to your address book for no reason at all, you should always refuse.

Photos and videos

This permission does not necessarily mean that an app can view all photos. Rather, it’s mostly about being able to use pictures or videos from the media library, for example to send them to others in a messenger app, upload them to Facebook or edit them. Camera apps from the App Stores also need this access – in order to save pictures. Again, if an app asks for no apparent reason, it’s better not to agree to it.

Settings in the cell phone

The following applies to these basic permissions for apps on Android and iOS: Some functions, such as saving and viewing pictures or managing contacts, simply don’t work without such a permission. Apart from these standard functions, the release for each additional app should be critically considered and decided on a case-by-case basis.

In case of doubt, nothing bad can happen if you don’t allow a program to do everything immediately. "In case of rejection, the app may lose functionality", Alexander Spier says. "Nothing usually breaks. Current apps must be built to simply tolerate this." Some older programs may cause problems. And once an authorization is granted or denied, it’s not set in stone. Users can make changes at any time.

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