Covert app communications result in Android battery drain

(Image Credit: iStockPhoto/makkayak)

Most applications require the use of data to perform their duties, but new research being released from MIT has found that half of communications are being conducted without any benefit whatsoever to the user. 

Aside from the questions it raises about why such communications are being established, it also reduces battery life, exposes users and their devices to privacy risks, and sucks up needless bandwidth (when many people are still on limited data plans.) 

In the paper, MIT's researchers wrote: "Our analysis shows that 63 percent of the external communication made by top popular free Android applications from Google Play has no effect on the user-observable application functionality," 

500 popular free Android apps were probed by the researchers, all from the Google Play store. Most free apps use data for advertising purposes whilst in operation, but there should not be such a significant amount of traffic in the background. The researchers disabled the apps' communication and found the experience in most of the apps to be unaffected – which leads the researchers to describe the unexplained communications as "covert".

By far the biggest culprit of covert communication was Google itself.

Some of the most widely-used applications notorious for affecting battery life include Facebook and Twitter – both apps researched by MIT and found to use secretive communications. Twitter collects information about videos followed by users, whilst apps use Facebook's social-graph services and transmit data about usage of apps. 

The researchers highlighted the case of Walmart's app which uses barcode scanning. Walmart's app connects to an eBay server, which isn't surprising because the scanner's library was created by eBay-owned barcode scanning app 'Red Laser', but it’s noted that "blocking the release of information does not harm the scanning capabilities," 

"There might be a very good reason for this covert communication. We are not trying to say that it has to be eliminated. We're just saying the user needs to be informed," said Julia Rubin, one of the contributors to the paper from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) told MIT News. 

By far the biggest culprit of covert communication was Google itself. Covert communications were found in 76.4% of Google's applications, whilst its apps made 49.9% of the covert calls. Considering that Google's primary business is based on advertising, it might come as little surprise the company is receiving a lot of communication in the background.

It raises about why such communications are being established

In order, the 10 players using the most background communication calls are; Google, Gameloft, InMobi, Millennial Media, Mopub, Mobileleads, Tapjoy, Facebook, and Flurry. 

The researchers at MIT performed their experiments on a Nexus 4 running Android 4.4.4. In the latest version of Google's operating system, Android 6.0, the company focused on increasing battery life with a feature called 'Doze' which "reduces battery consumption by deferring background CPU and network activity for apps when the device is unused for long periods of time." 

We'll have to wait for an updated version of the research before we can find out if Android 6 "Marshmallow" will have an impact on the covert communications being used by apps on the platform – especially Google's own. 

A full version of MIT's research can be found here (PDF) 

Do you find the covert background data of applications concerning? Let us know in the comments.


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13 Jan 2017, 8:34 p.m.

Looking at the manifest.xml of a popular gallery & browser, most closedown comms is 'Google Analytics' data for the benefit of the app proprietor. Temporarily toggling wifi off before closing an app stops it sending.