Take control of your apps’ permissions

It’s 10 p.m. Do you know what your apps are doing?

Doing a permission check once in a while is always a great idea. Nasik Lababan / Unsplash

This story has been updated. It was first published on December 10, 2020.

Your smartphone wouldn’t be all that useful without all the apps you’ve downloaded. Even when you’re not actively poking around within a program, they can run in the background—updating your location, checking your email, or playing music—to make life more convenient. But to do so, they need permission from your phone.

Permissions let Google Maps check where you are in the world, your camera app peek through the phone’s lens, and your favorite messenger scan your contacts before sending a text. Typically, apps request this type of access when you first open them. But you might end up granting some permissions that go beyond what the apps actually need. To check on these, you should regularly audit your app permissions.

Periodic permissions checks protect you against potentially unscrupulous app developers and give you more control over your privacy. As an added bonus, if fewer apps are working away in the background, your phone can save on battery life. Here’s how to get checking.

On Android

To find your apps and their permissions on Android, open the Settings and then tap Apps. The menu will show you shortcuts to the permission settings of the four apps you most recently opened, but right under the last one, you can access a full list of every app you’ve installed on your phone.  

Tap the name of the app you’re interested in and select Permissions to see all the privileges it enjoys. You’ll see a clear list of the privileges you have granted under Allowed, and those you have denied under Not Allowed—tap on any one to change it. Most times, you’ll be able to choose between Allow only while using the app, Ask every time, and Don’t allow

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At the end of that menu, in what seems more like text than an actionable button, you’ll also see another option: See all apps with this permission. When you tap on it you’ll see a list of all of the apps with that same privilege broken down into categories depending on how and when they can have that specific access. To change anything that doesn’t sit right with you, tap the name of the app and change the permission.

If you want to have a more granular understanding of what an app can and cannot access, go back to the Permissions menu, tap on the three dots in the top-right corner of your screen and select All permissions. There you’ll see different items, like Camera, Location, and Files and Media, and whether or not the app is allowed to get to them. But under each category, you’ll also be able to see exactly what the app can do with the access it has. For example, you’ll see if the tool can only read the contents of your storage, or if it can also modify and even delete them. Tapping each item on the list will give you a more detailed explanation of what that permission means, though sometimes you’ll only get the same description as on the previous menu but with a couple more words. 

Another option is to browse by permission rather than by app. Open Settings, go to Privacy, and choose Permission manager. Here, you’ll find a list that includes Body sensors, Calendar, Camera, Contacts, Location, Microphone, SMS, Storage, Telephone, and more. Tap any entry to see which apps can access that particular function. Again, you can make any necessary changes by tapping the name of an app and changing the permission as indicated on the next menu.

However, before you start cutting off permissions, remember that some apps rely on this access to do their jobs. For example, if an app can view your contacts, it might be using them to help you share content, to split a ride-hailing fare, or to invite people to an event—not to mine your data for profit. 

If you’re not sure why an app is asking for a particular permission, don’t shut it down immediately. First, look at its official website or its listing on the Google Play Store to see if it explains why it needs that access. Or contact the developer directly to ask why the program requested a certain permission.

On iOS

On iOS, check on app permissions by opening Settings, then tapping Privacy. Here, iPhones group all the permissions by type, including access to your device’s location, the Health app, the microphone, and other functions. Tap any permissions entry to see which apps have requested access and hit the toggle switches to approve or block individual apps in each category. For location tracking, you have more minute control: You can allow apps to track your location at all times, only when they’re open, or not at all.

You can also adjust permissions on an app-by-app basis. On the Settings screen, scroll down to see a list of all your installed apps. Tap on one of the entries, then work through the permissions one by one.

Some of the permissions you’ll see on iOS don’t exist on Android devices. The Siri & Search entry, for example, means data from an allowed app will show up when you search your device manually or with Siri. Meanwhile, the Background App Refresh option means apps can update themselves in the background while they’re not actually in use. Most of the time, such as when an app checks your inbox for new emails, this ability can be useful. But if you turn this off for certain apps, you’ll get a slightly longer battery life in return.

As on Android, if you’re not sure why an app is asking for a particular permission, check its Apple Store listing or website, or contact the developer directly. For example, Snapchat published an explanation of the permissions it needs—including access to the camera to take Snaps and to the microphone to record audio—in order to work properly on your device.

In individual apps

On top of the standard requests, some apps want additional permissions that you can review inside their own settings. These usually cover data collection and user behavior within the app—so they’re less about what the app is allowed to do on your phone and more about what the app can log and record about your activity within it.

For example, look at Twitter. From the front page of the app, tap on your avatar in the top left, choose Settings and privacy, and then choose Privacy and safety. Under the Data sharing and off-Twitter activity heading, you can see what data Twitter is collecting on your behavior, and how it uses this information to show you more relevant ads as you browse.

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Other apps contain similar permissions within their settings or on their official websites. So if you’re concerned about privacy, try reviewing these, as well as the terms and conditions you accepted when you first signed up for that service. In some cases, you have to accept an app’s policies to use it at all.

When it comes to apps’ activity on your phone, from accessing the camera to rifling through your contacts, our previous instructions should have you covered. While removing certain permissions can, in some cases, limit an app’s overall functionality, most of the time, the app as a whole should still run with reduced access.