Google introduces a way for Android apps to track you without tracking you

The Android mascot in front of a Google building.

Google on Tuesday unveiled a beta version of its “Privacy Sandbox” for Android, part of a year-long effort to transform the internet business and make it harder for companies to feast on their personal data buffet. Paradoxically, Google says its goal is to track everything you do online in a way that better protects your privacy.

“Building on our web efforts, we are developing digital advertising solutions that limit the sharing of user data and do not rely on cross-app identifiers,” said Anthony Chavez, vice president of product management for Google’s privacy sandbox initiative, in a blog post. “Over the past year we have been working closely with industry to gather feedback and begin testing these new technologies. Today we are entering the next phase of this initiative and are rolling out the first beta for the Privacy Sandbox on Android on eligible devices.”

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Privacy Sandbox is a suite of new targeted advertising tools that enable businesses to monetize their data without ever seeing that data themselves. Google promises that this is much better for your privacy. The changes grabbing all the attention come in favor of Google Chrome, where the company promises to kill third-party cookies, the primary way companies (including Google) have been tracking you for thirty years. But just as important are the updates Google is planning for Android.

The new beta test will initially roll out to a “small percentage” of Android 13 devices and expand over time. You’ll receive a notification if you’re selected, with the option to opt in or out as your little heart desires. But not only the users have fun, the beta is also available for app developers to test.

How does Google’s privacy sandbox work on Android?

Right now, anyone who wants your data can just slurp it up, but Privacy Sandbox for Android is changing that. Kind of. With Privacy Sandbox for Android, your phone’s operating system keeps tracking you. But! The collected data stays on your device. Nobody ever gets a copy, not even Google. Instead, your phone analyzes the collected data and, for example, assigns it to different interest categories, e.g. For example, “sports fan,” “guy who likes blue shirts,” or “journalist at Gizmodo who writes increasingly boring articles about dates.”

The story goes on

Businesses can use these insights for all the small promotional activities they love to do, but they can’t see the underlying data. In other words, you’ll still be exploited for targeted advertising, but less of your information will be floating around in the process. The upside for users is that it’s harder for companies to know everything you do on apps and websites they don’t own.

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It’s a significant and risky move for Google. The company bends over backwards to make these changes without giving itself a competitive advantage, which would infuriate antitrust authorities who are already taking legal action against the company.

It must be nice to be such a powerful company that you can make rules for all of your competitors. But don’t worry, Google says it’s not a monopoly, and its ability to dictate the terms of the web shouldn’t change your mind about it. To emphasize how unanti-competitive this is, Google has published a lengthy list of quotes from other ad tech companies who swear they’re excited about all of this. But even some experts who don’t help Google see Privacy Sandbox as a positive.

“I think the Privacy Sandbox for Android is the right way to address a tectonic privacy shift across platforms,” ​​said Eric Seufert, advertising industry analyst and author of the ad-tech blog Mobile Dev Memo. “It’s collaborative, with tools designed to maintain as much efficiency as possible in measurement and targeting while abstracting user-level data into aggregates and large, differently private but relevant audiences.”

I was just explaining all this to an unfortunate colleague who asked what I was writing about. Her response was basically, “It sounds like my phone just keeps spying on me.” Right. Privacy sandbox is just more data collection. It’s also important to note that this will not completely disrupt the flow of data. There are many other companies working on many other ways to track you to circumvent the privacy protections planned by Google.

However, to be fair to our friends at Google, this is all very different from the status quo and a step up for your privacy. You know what would be much better? When companies just stopped tracking you. But Google, a company that made $283 billion last year by tracking you, won’t. So let’s take what we can get.

“Privacy Sandbox on Android will be a win for Android users in some ways,” said Paul Bannister, chief strategy officer at ad tech firm Cafe Media, which is heavily invested in the development of Google’s privacy sandbox measures. Bannister said you have to distinguish between what Google, the company, knows and what Google, the operating system on your phone, knows. “In a sense, the Google entity loses access to information through the privacy sandbox because far less information is going back to the mother ship.”

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But how does the actual technology of Privacy Sandbox for Android differ from the previous one?

Want to get even more technical? Well, why didn’t you say that! Privacy Sandbox for Android consists of four main components: SDK runtime, themes, FLEDGE on Android, and attribution reports. I considered rewriting these words in French to illustrate how meaningless they are to the average person, but I’m pretty sure my editor would delete them.

Let’s start with SDK Runtime. I swear this is interesting. An SDK, or software development kit, is a block of code that you can build into your app from another company. For example, they earn money by integrating the Facebook advertising network into your app or by sending spy data to Spy Corporation™ in exchange for cash. A big problem with SDKs is that they often do all sorts of sneaky things to bypass the privacy protection built into your phone. The new SDK runtime feature ensures that all SDKs run in an isolated part of your phone’s operating system, rather than in the apps themselves. That’s a very big deal! It will give Google more control over illegal data collection and it might even make your apps run faster.

In second place are themes and FLEDGE. (I really hate how that acronym stands out on the page. Google, please change that, I have to type it so many times.) These two are similar. With Topics, your phone analyzes what apps you use and then tells advertisers what kind of apps you like without revealing who you are or the names of the apps. FLEDGE is something like that, except your apps let you tag things yourself. You can say things like, “This is that guy who loves sneaker shopping apps.” Then that app developer can later promote similar sneaker stuff. Google does exactly the same themes and FLEDGE stuff with websites in Google Chrome

Finally, the boring, attribution reporting (the other three were fun, duh). Attribution reporting is basically a system that advertisers can use to measure how well their ads are performing. Essentially, this feature keeps track of the people who see an ad and whether they buy the product or service. The privacy sandbox system makes this information available to advertisers in a useful way, but does not reveal any information about individuals. This is actually not boring, but technically impressive and incredibly important for the advertising industry.

What will happen to digital privacy when Google introduces this feature?

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After reading all of this, you’ve been a very good Gizmodo audience member, so as a reward, it’s time for a quick history lesson on the privacy movements of the last few years.

Apple introduced a feature similar to the Android Privacy Sandbox back in 2021 with a feature called App Tracking Transparency. If you’re an iPhone user, you’ve seen your apps asking you to give them permission to track you. In some ways, Apple’s attitude is much more powerful. If you say no, you just don’t want your apps to track you, period, and Apple didn’t seem even remotely concerned about who might be harmed by it. (Not that you should feel bad about the ad tech industry, just saying it’s been extremely disruptive). Conveniently, Apple still does its own tracking, even if it promises not to, research has shown, and the company has created entirely separate privacy settings for its own apps with much softer language.

Google has taken a much gentler approach. That same year, Google announced it would kill the third-party cookie, the primary way companies (including Google) have been using it to spy on everything you do on the internet. But Google promised to introduce something in place of those cookies that would still allow companies to use data to make some cool bucks. Everything that Google rolls out is called Privacy Sandbox, and Privacy Sandbox for Android is a part of it. The other part is all done in Google Chrome. Now you are very well informed about Privacy Sandbox.

Google does this for three reasons. First, because Google is your friend and loves you. Second, Google makes… how much was it? Oh right, $283 billion in a bad year from using your data, so it’s not going to kill cookies for nothing. And third, with governments around the world dying to deal the antitrust blow to Google, the company must be very careful not to harm its competition in overtly self-privileging ways.

“I think the main advantage Google will have is that they are the most prepared for it. But the other companies that are also leaning in and building their systems to adapt to the technology will also have an advantage,” Bannister said. “Anyone who sits back and says fuck Google and everyone else and refuses to work on it is in trouble. You ignore the rising tide.”

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