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Here’s how Google’s ban on SMS/Call Log permissions is hurting one developer

Here’s what Justin Payeur, Cyber Safety Specialist at Boomerang, a parental control app, has to say.

google sms permissions
Image: AndroidPub

For the most part, Google’s decision to remove apps from the Google Play Store that ask for SMS or Call Log permission without needing them as a core function is a good one. There should be no earthly reason that a calculator or other app needs access to your call log or SMS history. Zero.

That said, the way Google worded the change is affecting legitimate developers of security products, where the SMS/Call Log permission is part of the overall package rather than the core functionality.

Google’s stance is that the SMS/Call Log permission was “designed to allow users to pick their favorite dialer or messaging app” and has been abused by developers of other apps. So what if your app needs those permissions for security functions like whitelisting incoming calls? As a parent, wouldn’t you want to be able to filter and monitor incoming messages or calls? I’m not disputing the need for a smartphone, they’re an essential security tool for our children. Just, as a responsible parent – wouldn’t you do anything possible for your kids’ safety?

Good app developers being affected negatively

After we reported on the change at Google, we were contacted by one of the affected ‘good’ app developers. Justin Payeur is the Cyber Safety Specialist at Boomerang, a parental control app for both iOS and Android that helps parents keep their kids safe online, by enabling things like app control and safe browsing.

It also asks for SMS/Call Log permissions, so that the app can enable things like call restrictions where only existing contacts can be called, or SMS monitoring for user-created keywords. This puts control of the children’s smartphones firmly in the parent’s hand. It’s not a panacea for sloppy parenting, it’s designed to be a framework around which conversations about things like responsible screen time use and appropriate content can be initiated.

With safe SMS and call monitoring being a big draw to parents, he worries that if Google doesn’t grant an exception to the app he works on, that part of the trust its built over time with parents using the service will be eroded. “Safe Calling/Safe Texting is one of our core pillars, along with App Blocking/Screen Time and Safe Browsing/History,” Payeur notes, and it’s one of the main differentiators between the competition, including Google’s own parental control product – Family Link. The Safe Texting feature has helped police in their investigations due to it allowing conversations related to harm and cyberbullying to be tracked.

Couple that with the ability to provide visibility into who’s calling (or who the kids are calling) and the Boomerang app is also a powerful way to prevent things like grooming by online predators. As a parent myself, I’ll be wanting some sort of parental control like Boomerang when the time comes, so for Google to remove this part of their functionality feels wrong to me.

Google does offer developers a way to appeal, but it’s not great

Now, while Google does provide a way to lobby for an exception, it’s opaque at best. Boomerang filled out their request form right away, hearing nothing back for over a month where the request was initially denied. They queried this and were told to re-submit to gain an extension until March 2019. When they did as asked, the request form was totally different. Gone were the open-ended questions with room to explain their side, instead the questions included more “edge cases which came across as making it more difficult to receive an exemption.” With March fast approaching, Justin and his team are still waiting for Google to tell them if they were successful or not.

Since Boomerang has both Android and iOS apps, let us take a minute to contrast their experiences. On iOS, Boomerang has a direct line to a senior app review team member at Apple, so if/when issues like this arise, they can work together to resolve them. So far, Google’s responses to their communications have been fairly template-driven, unclearly worded and contain no constructive feedback to enable the team to use a different way of doing things (if indeed, there is another way). Boomerang says the percentage of their business that’s on Android is larger than their iOS percentage, so you’d think some sort of dialog with Google could happen.

Then again, Google has a long history of terrible support for any app developers that aren’t on the same level as Facebook or Spotify. Maybe Google should emulate Apple on this, hiring a dedicated app review team, instead of relying on the mostly-automated systems that often let malware through. Even something as simple as “hey, this part of your code doesn’t mesh with our standards” when Google does contact a developer would go a long way to smooth things over. I mean, there must be a reason that some apps are iOS-only. Maybe it’s as simple as developer support.

As for Payeur, he has a word of advice for Google: “we really wish Google would provide an empowered team that can have constructive conversations with developers vs. the current approach that is very cold ‘we changed things, use this form, good luck’!”

What do you think? Should Google re-examine its protocol for this? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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Maker, meme-r and unabashed geek. Hardware guy here at KnowTechie, if it runs on electricity (or even if it doesn't) I probably have one around here somewhere. My hobbies include photography, animation and hoarding Reddit gold.

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