You can often find bloatware on phones from mobile carriers, especially on cheaper handsets. But a coalition of privacy groups is worried the same pre-installed apps have background functions and data collection processes users aren’t aware of.
More than 50 privacy groups are calling on Google to stop vendors from permanently installing “bloatware” on Android phones over concerns the same pre-installed apps can pose a security risk to consumers.
“People shouldn’t have to trade their privacy and security for access to a smartphone,” writes UK-based Privacy International. On Wednesday, it joined the American Civil Liberties Union, search engine DuckDuckGo, and dozens of other privacy-focused groups in publishing an open letter urging Google CEO Sundar Pichai to rein in the bloatware, which is often present on lower-end phones.
The bloatware isn’t just an eyesore; the same apps can be built with custom permissions that give them greater access to the phone’s Android OS than a typical mobile app you download from the Google Play Store. “This means permissions can be defined by the app—including access to the microphone, camera and location—without triggering the standard Android security prompts. Users are therefore completely in the dark about these serious intrusions,” the letter says.
The bloatware is often permanently installed on the phone, giving the consumer both no choice to opt out from any potential data tracking, or a way to delete the apps if they ever suffer from a critical security bug. “We are concerned that this leaves users vulnerable to the exploitative business practices of cheap smartphone manufacturers around the world,” the letter adds.
So far, Google hasn’t commented on the letter. But it was sent as the antivirus company Malwarebytes discovered that a low-end $35 Android smartphone supplied by a provider under Virgin Mobile contains permanently installed computer code that can be used to deliver other apps without the user’s knowledge. The same phone will also secretly load adware in the background processes.
The privacy groups are demanding Google address the problem by giving all consumers the option to delete any bloatware on Android phones, no matter the model. In addition, the pre-installed apps should be required to roll out updates. Google should also vet the apps with the same scrutiny the company gives to products listed on the Google Play Store.
“Being economically vulnerable should not mean losing your fundamental rights and companies have a responsibility to protect their consumers,” said Privacy International, which has also created an online petition calling on Google to make the proposed changes.