Google Research

Analyzing User Perspectives on Mobile App Privacy at Scale

International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) (2022) (to appear)

Abstract

In this paper we present a methodology to analyze users’ concerns and perspectives about privacy at scale. We leverage NLP techniques to process millions of mobile app reviews and extract privacy concerns. Our methodology is composed of a binary classifier that distinguishes between privacy and non-privacy related reviews. We use clustering to gather reviews that discuss similar privacy concerns, and employ summarization metrics to extract representative reviews to summarize each cluster. We apply our methods on 287M reviews for about 2M apps across the 29 categories in Google Play to identify top privacy pain points in mobile apps. We identified approximately 440K privacy related reviews. We find that privacy related reviews occur in all 29 categories, with some issues arising across numerous app categories and other issues only surfacing in a small set of app categories. We show empirical evidence that confirms dominant privacy themes – concerns about apps requesting unnecessary permissions, collection of personal information, frustration with privacy controls, tracking and the selling of personal data. As far as we know, this is the first large scale analysis to confirm these findings based on hundreds of thousands of user inputs. We also observe some unexpected findings such as users warning each other not to install an app due to privacy issues, users uninstalling apps due to privacy reasons, as well as positive reviews that reward developers for privacy friendly apps. Finally we discuss the implications of our method and findings for developers and app stores.

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