Computer News apps
MIT researchers have found that much of the data transferred to and from the 500 most popular free applications for Google Android cellphones make little or no difference to the user’s experience.
Of those “covert” communications, roughly half appear to be initiated by standard Android analytics packages, which report statistics on usage patterns and program performance and are intended to help developers improve applications.
“The interesting part is that the other 50 percent cannot be attributed to analytics, ” says Julia Rubin, a postdoc in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who led the new study. “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.”
The researchers reported their findings last week at the IEEE/ACM International Conference on Automated Software Engineering. Joining Rubin on the paper are Martin Rinard, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT; Michael Gordon, who received his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science in 2010 and remained at CSAIL as a researcher until last July; and Nguyen Nguyen of the engineering firm UWin Software.
Different operations performed by the same mobile app may require outside communication, and rather than try to coordinate shared access to a single communication channel, the app will typically open a separate communication channel for each operation.
The researchers analyzed the number of communication channels opened by the 500 most popular mobile apps and found that roughly 50 percent of them appear to have no bearing on the user experience. That doesn’t necessarily translate directly to the quantity of data exchanged over those channels, but for short sessions of application use, the portion of transmitted data irrelevant to user experience is also as much as 50 percent.
Across longer sessions, in which large files are transferred to the phone — by, say, music- or video-streaming services — the percentage of data transmitted covertly steadily diminishes. But covert communication channels remain open.
Piercing the veil
Mobile applications are usually proprietary: Their source code is not publicly available, and their developers frequently take pains to disguise the details of the programs’ execution, a technique known as obfuscation.