Google plans to restrict apps from tracking users on Android devices

Following Apple’s app tracking changes last year, Google also plans to adopt new privacy restrictions to curtail tracking across apps on Android smartphones.
17 February 2022

Google is planning to restrict apps from tracking users on Android devices. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP)

  • Google announced a multi-year initiative to build a Privacy Sandbox on Android to control how apps track users
  • The goal is to introduce new, more private advertising solutions
  • Google will keep supporting current smartphone identifiers for at least the next two years to give the industry substantial notice before any changes

Last year, Apple Inc. rolled out a major privacy feature that allows iOS users to decide how they want their personal data handled. The App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature didn’t take too long before it upended the digital-ad industry, causing a massive revenue drop for advertisers especially. Now, Google wants to do the same, by developing new privacy measures that remove the ability for apps to track users on Android devices.

Looking back, Android has actually been offering a way for users to opt out of targeted advertising as well as a Privacy Dashboard that shows what apps are using which permissions, but falls well short of the kind of transparent tools and opt-in enforcement Apple offers. 

Android Security & Privacy’s VP Anthony Chavez believes that in order to ensure a healthy app ecosystem — benefiting users, developers and businesses — the industry must continue to evolve how digital advertising works to improve user privacy. “That’s why we originally developed advertising ID to give users more control. Last year we introduced improvements to these controls, but we believe it’s important to go further,” he added.

Google curtailing tracking through apps

The search engine behemoth said on Wednesday that they are announcing a multi-year initiative to build the Privacy Sandbox on Android, with the goal of introducing new, more private advertising solutions. To be precise, these solutions will limit sharing of user data with third parties and operate without cross-app identifiers, including advertising ID. 

“We’re also exploring technologies that reduce the potential for covert data collection, including safer ways for apps to integrate with advertising SDKs,” Chavez said, adding that the Privacy Sandbox on Android builds on Google’s existing efforts on the web, providing a clear path forward to improve user privacy without putting access to free content and services at risk.

In the same statement, Google seemed to have taken a jibe at Apple ​​by highlighting that blunt approaches by others have proven ineffective. “We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers,” Chavez said.

He believes that without first providing a privacy-preserving alternative path — such approaches can be ineffective and lead to worse outcomes for user privacy and developer businesses. “Our goal with the Privacy Sandbox on Android is to develop effective and privacy-enhancing advertising solutions, where users know their information is protected, and developers and businesses have the tools to succeed on mobile,” he added.

At this point, Google is designing, building and testing these new solutions for the apps, but plans to support existing ads platform features for at least two years. “We intend to provide substantial notice ahead of any future changes,” Chaves highlighted. “We’ve already heard from many partners about their interest in working together to improve ads privacy on Android, and invite more organizations to participate.”

In fact, companies like Snapchat and Dualingo are open to Google’s privacy policy. Snapchat said they have “made privacy a priority and placed it at the center of how we design our products. We are excited to collaborate with Google to develop new privacy-preserving standards for Android.” Duolingo on the other hand “appreciates the deliberative process Android is taking to publish new proposals and solicit feedback from the ecosystem.”

Google is also committed to working closely with regulators, as it is aware that initiative needs input from across the industry in order to succeed. The tech giant plans to release developer previews over the course of the year, with a beta release by the end of the year.