It would seem that app permissions are more important than ever.
With that in mind, we took a good, close look at how Android 6.0 Marshmallow and iOS 9 stack up when it comes to keeping you informed of what information an app wants to access and why. Which one provides the most information? Which makes it easier to change permissions settings later on? Which one is more user friendly? In the end, one OS came out ahead of the other, but both have plenty of room for improvement.
When it comes to mobile apps, it's good to know what you're getting yourself into before you install them. Both iOS and Android take steps to inform you of the permissions an app may need, but the two take significantly different approaches.
Google Play, on the other hand, gives at-a-glance permissions information that you can view before you even tap the Install button—simply scroll down an app page’s on the Play store then tap Permission details. This will tell you what features and information an app may need to access. The downside? It won’t actually give at-a-glance specifics as to why the app needs those permissions—for that, you’ll have to dig through the often-jargon-filled privacy policies.
In earlier versions of Android, the Play store would prompt you with these permissions details when you download the app, but apps designed with Android 6.0 Marshmallow in mind will ask you for permission to access certain device features (like your camera or microphone) or kinds of data (your contacts list or photos, for example) the first time the app requests access to it. This is very similar to the approach Apple has taken in iOS.
Android Marshmallow provides more detailed information up front, and also asks for permission as you use the apps you download. It could benefit from better explanation as to why an app may need access to something, but Google would have to rely heavily on developers to provide these explanations.
The App Store could use some more detailed permissions information before you download. Apple is more stringent with what goes on the store to begin with, which somewhat reduces the risk of apps abusing any information or features they have access to, but that’s outside the scope of this comparison.
Adjusting permissions settings
If you change your mind later and would rather not have an app have access to your contacts or location or what-have-you, both Android and iOS let you adjust your permissions through the Settings app.
iOS gives privacy options top-level placement in Settings app—just head to Settings > Privacy and you can tweak app permissions with not-so-reckless abandon. The iOS Privacy settings screen also lets you change settings for Diagnostics and ad privacy. It’s a one-stop privacy shop, and it’s super easy to get to.
Getting to permissions settings on Android takes an extra tap or two, and you could be forgiven for not knowing that they even existed. To get to them, go to Settings > Apps, tap the Gear icon in the upper right corner, then tap App permissions. Alternately, you can go to Settings > Apps, tap the name of the app whose settings you want to change, then tap App permissions and toggle away from there. This latter option will let you toggle permissions only for the app you select, whereas the former lets you change permissions for all apps.
Android gives you a little more flexibility in terms of what you can control: For example, you can set which apps can send and receive SMS messages, something you can’t do on iOS. Of course, Android lets you change your default SMS app, which isn’t possible on iOS to begin with. Put simply, if flexibility is what you want, Android is for you.
iOS gets the nod here based on the simplicity of its privacy approach: You have one place for all things privacy that requires minimal digging through settings menus. Android’s privacy and permissions settings, while greatly improved in Android Marshmallow, are still somewhat scattershot compared to those in iOS. In the future, we’d like to see Android include a top-level section in the Settings app for permissions and privacy options.
Of course, permissions notifications and settings aren’t especially useful if they are hard to understand or omit important details.
Despite providing more details about permissions from the start, Android’s language is a bit more technical than that of iOS. If you know your way around a computer reasonably well, you’ll probably understand Android’s permissions details screen without any problem. If you don’t know what the terms “near-field communication” and “sticky broadcast” mean, though, the permissions disclosures will be less useful.
That said, Marshmallow’s permissions details screen is clearer and more straightforward than it was in prior versions of Android, so you can at least get the gist more often than not.
iOS lacks the nitty-gritty permissions disclosures that Android has, but its language on the Privacy settings screens is straightforward, and it even includes extra explanatory text as needed. For example, go to Settings > Privacy > Photos, and you’ll get a friendly reminder that photos “may contain other information, such as when and where the photo was taken.” It’s clear, it’s to the point, and it calls attention to a potential privacy issue that you may not have been aware of.
In addition, many apps that request your location provide a brief description as to why they want to know your location in Settings > Privacy > Location Services. This is not universal, though, and it’s buried in the Settings app, so it isn’t as useful as it could be. Such descriptive blurbs don’t appear when an app asks to access your data for the first time, limiting the usefulness of this sort of information.
iOS edges out Android here thanks to its friendlier and somewhat clearer wording permissions screens, but Apple still has plenty of room to improve, so it isn’t a clear victory. Apple avoids using technical jargon to a greater degree than Android and provides additional explanation as necessary. This added information is tucked away, though, which limits its usefulness. Although Google took a big step forward with permissions in Android Marshmallow, it could stand to simplify things a little more.
Permissions: The bottom line
Based on our scorecard, iOS comes out ahead on the strength of its friendlier approach and streamlined permissions settings interface, while Android wins kudos for its up-front explanation of permissions. Overall, Android provides more flexibility and detail, while iOS is easier to understand and puts privacy and permissions settings in a place that's easier to find. And since privacy and security tools are only useful on a large scale if they're simple and easy to use, we give the edge to iOS. It’s hardly a decisive victory, however: Android and iOS aren't very far apart when it comes to managing app permissions, and Android Marshmallow makes great strides in this area. We hope Google polishes privacy settings further in Android N.