APP-rehension

Innocent-sounding cell phone apps can be dangerous.
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The world is going mobile.

Just last night, I went to a lecture at a museum that had a standing-room only crowd that ranged in age from 15 to 75. From where I sat, most people had smartphones and tablets that they pulled out immediately when there was an intermission or other break in the action.

As we all know, these mobile devices live and die by their apps, and one of the simplest and seemingly safest smartphone app has to be the flashlight.

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Bob Kovacs

The most basic version of the flashlight app for an Android phone turns on the flash LED, the one that’s used to add light for photos. This makes a surprisingly good flashlight, as that is a bright little LED.

Seems simple, right?

Go to the Google Play Store, search on the term “flashlight app” and see what comes up. In my search, the app at the top of the list is called “Super-Bright LED Flashlight” and it consumes 5 MB of space. Doesn’t that seem like a big program for something as simple as a flashlight app?

Sure enough, when you check the fine print for Super-Bright LED Flashlight, it says that loading this app will give it permission to do the following:

• Take pictures and videos
• Receive data from the Internet
• Control the flashlight
• Change system display settings
• Modify system settings
• Prevent the device from sleeping
• View network connections
• Full network access

For a flashlight? Only one of those things that the app can do has anything to do with turning on the LED—the rest sound surprisingly dangerous.

Of course, if you have a more complex app such as a navigation aid or astronomy guide, it will require access to various features of your phone and it gets a little confusing to know just what parts of the phone need to be accessed.

Elsewhere in the Google Play Store, “Brightest Flashlight Free” requires only 1.2 MB of space but it has an even longer list of the things that it has permission to access on your cell phone. In a quick search, one called “Galaxy S4 LED Flashlight” consumed 1.6 MB of data and touched the fewest parts of the phone: It accessed only the camera, viewed the network connections and required full network access. Still a little scary if you ask me.

I mention this because well all carry smartphones and tablets, and we all load apps. Many of us work in situations where we have access to sensitive (and even confidential) information, and we enjoy how our cell phones make our work lives easier with convenient access to our work e-mail accounts and documents.

I bet that you never thought that you just might compromise that information by downloading a flashlight app.

Obviously, we all need to be very careful about how we use our mobile technology and what apps we use. I can only imagine what sort of approvals an eight-year-old will give on a parent’s phone, just to get access to some irresistible game.

And I can only imagine who or what is getting access to our phones when we grant permission to change the system’s settings and see our network connections. We all need our phones, but we all have to be careful.

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