Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) 2012

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Permission Evolution in the Android Ecosystem

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Xuetao Wei
University of California, Riverside
United States

Lorenzo Gomez
University of California, Riverside
United States

Iulian Neamtiu
University of California, Riverside
United States

Michalis Faloutsos
University of California, Riverside
United States

Abstract:
Android uses a system of permissions to control how apps access sensitive devices and data stores. Unfortunately, we have little understanding of the evolution of Android permissions since their inception (2008). Is the permission model allowing the Android platform and apps to become more secure? In this paper, we present arguably the first long-term study that is centered around both permission evolution and usage, of the entire Android ecosystem (platform, third-party apps and pre-installed apps). First, we study the Android platform to see how the set of permissions has evolved; we find that this set tends to grow, and the growth is not aimed towards providing finer-grained permissions but rather towards offering access to new hardware features; a particular concern is that the set of Dangerous permissions is increasing. Second, we study Android third-party and pre-installed apps to examine whether they follow the principle of least privilege. We find that this is not the case, as an increasing percentage of the popular apps we study are overprivileged. In addition, the apps tend to use more permissions over time. Third, we highlight some concerns with pre-installed apps, i.e., apps that vendors distribute with the phone; these apps have access to, and use, a larger set of higher-privileged permissions which pose security and privacy risks. At the risk of oversimplification, we state that the Android ecosystem is not becoming more secure from the user’s point of view. Our study derives four recommendations for improving the Android security and suggests the need to revisit the practices and policies of the ecosystem.

 

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