Here’s how data-thirsty the apps on your phone are: HDFC Bank’s app won’t install until you permit it to access phone calls and SMS permissions. The same goes for ICICI Bank. Then there is Airtel TV. The first thing Airtel’s OTT app wants is access to your photos and videos. It goes on to ask for multiple permissions. But unlike the banks, it installs even when denied the litany of permissions it sought. Clearly, the app doesn’t really need any of that data to function, but it asks for permission to access it. Why?

Because Google’s Android operating system (OS) allowed it to do so.

If data is oil, then every company with an app is drilling for it. And Google not only is the largest driller of them all, but it also has access to over 90% of oil wells by virtue of owning Android, which powers 97% of India’s smartphones. And now, after companies have enjoyed easy access to data and grown dependent on Google for it, the search giant is restricting its supply.

On 9 January, all companies that have apps on the Google Play Store had to stop asking users for access to SMS and call log details, ostensibly to protect users’ data. After all, Google announced this move on 8 October, the same day a Wall Street Journal report stated that a software glitch on Google’s own social networking site, Google Plus, exposed a trove of user data. Worse, Google didn’t tell users. It didn’t want to be painted with the same brush as Facebook, which was still smarting from its user data being leaked to data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica.

In response, Google shut down its social network. Going a step further, it announced that only Android applications selected as ‘default apps’ for calling or texting by users would be allowed to request access to SMS and call data. This brings to an end a decade-old practice of allowing access to this data, with companies given a three-month deadline to update their apps to ensure compliance.

That deadline was 9 January.

While user privacy is a valid concern, the move carries serious implications for companies who have built their business models around access to this data. Lending fintechs, for example, use this data to estimate users’ income and give loans accordingly. Google’s move creates a massive blind spot for these companies.

For its part, Google has since created a list of exceptional use cases that apps can still access SMS data for, as well as a list of invalid use cases.

With these lists malleable according to Google’s discretion, businesses who’ve seen their data taps turned off can appeal to Google for an exemption.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is Bengaluru-based. She is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She has spent over 10 years reporting and writing on various subjects. Previous stints were at Mint, Outlook Business and Reuters.

View Full Profile

Available exclusively to subscribers of The Ken India

This story is a part of The Ken India edition. Subscribe. Questions?

MOST POPULAR

Annual Subscription

12-month access to 200+ stories, archive of 800+ stories from our India edition. Plus our premium newsletters, Beyond The First Order and The Nutgraf worth Rs. 99/month or $2/month each for free.

Rs. 2,750

Subscribe
 

Quarterly Subscription

3-month access to 60+ new stories with 3-months worth of archives from our India edition. Plus our premium newsletters, Beyond The First Order and The Nutgraf worth Rs. 99/month or $2/month each for free.

Rs. 1,750

Subscribe
 

Single Story

Instant access to this story for a year along with comment privileges.

Rs. 500

Subscribe
MOST POPULAR

Annual Subscription

12-month access to 150+ stories from Southeast Asia.

$ 120

Subscribe
 

Quarterly Subscription

3-month access to 35+ stories from Southeast Asia.

$ 50

Subscribe
 

Single Story

Instant access to this story for a year along with comment privileges.

$ 20

Subscribe

Questions?

What is The Ken?

The Ken is a subscription-only business journalism website and app that provides coverage across two editions - India and Southeast Asia.

What kind of stories do you write?

We publish sharp, original and reported stories on technology, business and healthcare. Our stories are forward-looking, analytical and directional — supported by data, visualisations and infographics.

We use language and narrative that is accessible to even lay readers. And we optimise for quality over quantity, every single time.

What do I get if I subscribe?

For subscribers of the India edition, we publish a new story every weekday, a premium daily newsletter, Beyond The First Order and a weekly newsletter - The Nutgraf.

For subscribers of the Southeast Asia edition, we publish a new story three days a week and a weekly newsletter, Strait Up.

The annual subscription will get you complete, exclusive access to our archive of previously published stories for your edition, along with access to our subscriber-only mobile apps, our premium comment sections, our newsletter archives and several other gifts and benefits.

Do I need to pay separately for your premium newsletters?

Nope. Paid, premium subscribers of The Ken get our newsletters delivered for free.

Does a subscription to the India edition grant me access to Southeast Asia stories? Or vice-versa?

Afraid not. Each edition is separate with its own subscription plan. The India edition publishes stories focused on India. The Southeast Asia edition is focused on Southeast Asia. We may occasionally cross-publish stories from one edition to the other.

Do you offer an all-access joint subscription for both editions?

Not yet. If you’d like to access both editions, you’ll have to purchase two subscriptions separately - one for India and the other for Southeast Asia.

Do you offer any discounts?

No. We have a zero discounts policy.

Is there a free trial I can opt for?

We don’t offer any trials, but you can sign up for a free account which will give you access to the weekly free story, our archive of free stories and summaries of the paid stories. You can stay on the free account as long as you’d like.

Do you offer refunds?

We allow you to sample our journalism for free before signing up, and after you do, we stand by its quality. But we do not offer refunds.

I am facing some trouble purchasing a subscription. What can I do?

Please write to us at [email protected] detailing the error or queries.