ANDROID fans have been put on alert and delivered a shock warning about a number of popular apps on the Google Play Store.
Android users are being warned about “dangerous” permissions that popular Google Play Store apps are asking for.
Android is one of the most used pieces of software in the world, with the Google mobile OS running on over two billion devices each and every month.
The huge Android userbase has been subject to some high-profile security scares, with the Judy malware arguably the biggest in recent times.
This was feared to have left over 36million Android devices infected by dozens of apps found on the Google Play Store.
And now Android fans are once again being put on alert about a shock security issue they need to be aware of.
VPNs are big business, offering a service that gives those on public networks extra privacy and security.
But experts have claimed that over half of VPN apps for Android ask users for “dangerous” permissions.
Out of 81 apps downloaded from the Google Play Store, 62 per cent required dangerous permissions from Android users according to research.
Android warning – ‘Dangerous’ Google Play Store apps used by millions, are you affected? (Image: GOOGLE • GETTY)
A dangerous permission “could potentially affect user’s privacy or the device’s normal operation” and “the user must explicitly agree to grant those permissions”.
The study was conducted by The Best VPN and revealed in a post online.
Android apps that asked for “dangerous” permissions included those downloaded millions of times from the Google Play Store.
Outlining the research from The Best VPN, John Mason wrote: “Many of the VPN apps reviewed in this study ask for permissions that are not needed for a VPN to function.
Malware from Google Play apps found in Android phones
“Some permissions are fairly harmless. Like the ability to cause the phone to vibrate or push app notifications.
“However others are more suspicious. While these permissions can be used for benign purposes, they also have the ability to compromise the user’s privacy.”
The study advised: “When selecting and installing a VPN app on Android, paying attention to permissions is important.
“Read the description and think about whether the app really needs the ability to record you in order to provide a VPN service.
Android users have been put on alert about popular Google Play Store apps used by millions (Image: GETTY)
“Some of the apps from the biggest companies turned out to be the most suspicious in this study, so you can’t just trust the big names.”
A number of the apps that The Best VPN said were asking for “dangerous” permissions have been downloaded millions of times from the Google Play Store.
Click here to be directed to The Best VPN website to read the full list of apps allegedly asking for such permissions (see below).
The purpose of a permission is to protect the privacy of an Android user.
According to Android documentation for app developers, permissions fall into two groups – normal and dangerous.
- Normal permissions – Don’t pose risk to the user’s privacy and are granted automatically by the system to the app.
- Dangerous permissions – Could potentially affect user’s privacy or the device’s normal operation, the user must explicitly agree to grant those permissions.
As a VPN user, you want your VPN to not ask any kind of dangerous permissions that are not needed for the VPN app to function or which can compromise your privacy.
In this study, 81 Android VPN apps were evaluated based upon the permissions that they request.
Our goal was to find out the most commonly used permissions by the VPN apps as well as the questionable and more suspicious permissions that are either not needed for the VPN app to work or are violating the user’s privacy or security.
All of the tested apps were downloaded from the Google Play store and the permissions lists were extracted directly from the app’s .apk file. Here’s a more detailed Google spreadsheet with all the permissions from the tested Android VPN apps.
Most Commonly Asked Permissions By VPNs
Android has a variety of different permissions for different purposes. Depending on what an app wants to do and how it does it, it may need a different set of permissions. Table 1 shows the most common permissions requested by the VPN apps in this study.
Table 1. Most commonly requested permissions for Android VPN apps.
- Green: Normal – permissions granted automatically by the Android system.
- Red: Dangerous – permissions that compromise user’s privacy or system (user must agree).
|android.permission.INTERNETAllows VPN applications to open network sockets.||81|
|android.permission.ACCESS_NETWORK_STATEAllows VPN applications to access information about networks.||79|
|android.permission.WAKE_LOCKFor keeping device awake.||58|
|android.permission.RECEIVE_BOOT_COMPLETEDTo notify if device restart is completed.||55|
|android.permission.ACCESS_WIFI_STATEAllows VPN applications to access information about Wi-Fi networks.||54|
|com.android.vending.BILLINGFor in-app billing purposes.||50|
|com.google.android.finsky.permission.BIND_GET_INSTALL_REFERRER_SERVICEGives the VPN developers information on how the users arrived to the app before installing.||32|
|android.permission.WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGEAllows VPN to write to external storage, such as SD.||27|
|android.permission.READ_EXTERNAL_STORAGEAllows VPN to read from external storage, such as SD.||27|
|android.permission.FOREGROUND_SERVICEFor keeping the VPN application running.||20|
|android.permission.READ_PHONE_STATEAllows read only access to phone state, including the phone number of the device, current cellular network information and the status of any ongoing calls.||18|
|android.permission.ACCESS_COARSE_LOCATIONAllows the API to use WiFi or mobile cell data (or both) to determine the device’s location.||16|
|android.permission.CHANGE_WIFI_STATEAllows VPN applications to change Wi-Fi connectivity state.||16|
|android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATIONAllows VPN app to access users precise location.||9|
Many of the permissions above are needed for a VPN to function, these include getting access to Internet, checking your connection status and keeping your app awake. These are completely normal and shouldn’t cause any worry. They are listed as “normal” by the Android developers.
Some permissions, such as android.permission.INTERNET and android.permission.ACCESS_NETWORK_STATE was granted to all of the VPN apps automatically.
However, in this list, there were also “dangerous” permissions that could potentially compromise Android user privacy, these were related to getting access to your precise location, device name, your phone number and reading your SD card.
A Look Into “Dangerous” Permissions
Once we had identified all the permissions of each 81 VPNs (including the common ones), we filtered out permissions that were not needed for a VPN app to function and can potentially harm the user’s privacy.
Many of the VPN apps reviewed in this study ask for permissions that are not needed for a VPN to function.
Some permissions are fairly harmless. Like the ability to cause the phone to vibrate or push app notifications.
However others are more suspicious. While these permissions can be used for benign purposes (i.e. requesting access to coare location is a way to get the name of a WiFi network for handling reconnections), they also have the ability to compromise the user’s privacy.
Others have no legitimate purpose in a VPN app, like WRITE_SETTINGS which allows VPN app to write the system settings or READ_LOGS, which allows VPN app to read the low-level system log files.
Table 2. Apps with most suspicious/dangerous permissions
|VPN Name||# of dangerous permission||Exact permission name|
|Yoga VPNGoogle Play link||6||android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION|
|proXPN VPNGoogle Play link||5||android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION|
|Hola Free VPNGoogle Play link||4||android.permission.READ_PHONE_STATE|
|Seed4.Me VPNGoogle Play link||4||android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION|
|OvpnSpiderGoogle Play link||4||android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION|
|SwitchVPNGoogle Play link||4||android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION|
|Zoog VPNGoogle Play link||4||android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION|
Most concerning permissions were used by the Yoga VPN app (5+ million installs on Google Play) and oVPNSpider that asked permissions to read and write system settings, get access to your phone state and your exact location with ability to read and write to SD which are not required for a VPN app to work.
Another notable permission used by oVPNSpider and tigerVPN is the READ_LOGS permission. This permission is no longer available to third-party apps (like VPNs) due to privacy concerns, and the app should not be requesting it at all.
Below are explanations of suspicious permissions asked by Android VPN apps:
1. WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE and READ_EXTERNAL_STORAGE
Allows VPN to read and write to external storage – not needed for a VPN app to function and couldcompromise user’s privacy.
- Permission: android.permission.WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE and READ_EXTERNAL_STORAGE
- Used by the following 27 VPN apps: Betternet, Free VPN org, OneVPN, X-VPN, StarVPN, VPN One Click, Yoga VPN, AppVPN, ProXPN, Seed4me VPN, oVPNSpider, Goose VPN, SpyOFF, TouchVPN, SwitchVPN, Trust Zone, McAfee VPN, SurfEasy, Psiphon, TigerVPN, Dash VPN, Hotspot Shield, NordVPN, Hola VPN, SurfShark, VPN Secure, Zoog VPN.
Allows VPN read only access to phone state, including the phone number of the device, current cellular network information and the status of any ongoing calls – not needed for a VPN to work.
- Permission: android.permission.READ_PHONE_STATE
- Used by the following Android 18 VPN apps: Avira VPN, Free VPN org, Norton Secure VPN, VPN One Click, Yoga VPN, HideMyAss, AVG VPN, ProXPN, Goose VPN, Touch VPN, McAfee VPN, SurfEasy, Kaspersky VPN, Speedify, Dash VPN, Hotspot Shield, ibVPN, Hola VPN.
Allows VPN to use WiFi or mobile cell data (or both) to determine the device’s location – potential privacy risk.
- Permission: android.permission.ACCESS_COARSE_LOCATION
- Used by the following 16 VPN apps: WindScribe, Free VPN org, Yoga VPN, HideMyAss, Avast VPN, AVG VPN, iVPN, ProXPN, oVPNSpider, TouchVPN, SwitchVPN, Kaspersky VPN, Psiphon VPN, Speedify, Dash VPN, Zoog VPN .
Allows a VPN app to access user’s precise location – high privacy risk.
- Permission: android.permission.ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION
- Used by the following 9 VPN apps: Yoga VPN, VPN Unlimited, ProXPN, Seed4me VPN, oVPNSpider, SwitchVPN, Dash VPN, Hola VPN, Zoog VPN
Allows VPN app to to read or write the system settings – high security and privacy risk.
- Permission: android.permission.WRITE_SETTINGS
- Used by the following 3 VPN apps: Speedify and Yoga VPN.
Allows VPN app to read the low-level system log files. Not for use by third-party applications, because Log entries can contain the user’s private information – high privacy risk.
- Permission: android.permission.READ_LOGS
- Used by the following 2 VPN apps: TigerVPN, oVPNSpider.
Allows VPN application to manage access to documents, usually as part of a document picker. This permission should only be requested by the platform document management app. This permission cannot be granted to third-party apps.
- Permission: android.permission.MANAGE_DOCUMENTS
- Used by TigerVPN
Allows an application to retrieve state dump information from system services. Not for use by third-party applications.
- Permission: android.permission.DUMP
- Used by PureVPN
In the last table, we are listing out all the VPNs we tested and their permissions in total, custom permissions and suspicious permissions.
Table 3. VPN apps ranked by requested permissions
|VPN name||.apk file name||Suspicious Permissions||Total Permissions||Custom Permissions|
|Seed 4 Me||me.seed4.app.android||4||17||4|
|Free VPN org||org.freevpn||3||12||2|
|VPN One Click||com.vpnoneclick.android||3||7||0|
|Hotspot Shield VPN||hotspotshield.android.vpn||3||16||3|
|Mcafee Safe Connect||com.mcafee.safeconnect.android||2||10||2|
|Avira Phantom VPN||com.avira.vpn.AviraVPNApplication||1||13||1|
|Norton Secure VPN||com.symantec.securewifi||1||13||3|
|VPN In Touch||com.vpnintouch.android||1||9||2|
|Hide My IP||com.hidemyip.hideme||1||10||1|
|Private Internet Access||com.privateinternetaccess.android||1||5||0|
In theory, VPN apps should only need a few permissions to function. INTERNET and ACCESS_NETWORK_STATE should usually be enough.
However, as an average, 11 permissions are asked per VPN app.
Android provides a wide variety of possible permission for applications to take advantage of. However, there is also the potential for apps to define their own permissions as well. In many cases, these permissions are benign, like allowing an app to talk to the maker’s cloud systems (a commonly requested one for these apps).
Higher up the table are VPN apps that have the most dangerous permissions that could affect user’s privacy. Especially Yoga VPN, ProxPN and TigerVPN
However, the use of a large number of dangerous permissions could be cause for suspicion.
When selecting and installing a VPN app on Android, paying attention to permissions is important. Read the description and think about whether the app really needs the ability to record you in order to provide a VPN service. Some of the apps from the biggest companies turned out to be the most suspicious in this study, so you can’t just trust the big names.