Google’s privacy-focused ad tracking solution comes to Android in beta

Google is launching a beta version of Privacy Sandbox for Android starting today. The program is the company’s attempt to combine user privacy with targeted advertising, something the search giant has been working on for years in its planned move away from cookie-based web tracking.

One of the pillars of Privacy Sandbox is the Topics API, which creates a list of your top interests based on usage. It then compares them to a database from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and data from Google. Affiliate publishers can ping the API, which responds with a list of interests to serve relevant ads without sharing overly intrusive information. According to Google, saved interests are “only kept for three weeks and old topics are deleted”. In addition, the data and the processing on the device take place “without involving external servers, including Google servers”.

The beta marks the first time Privacy Sandbox is publicly available on Android. Google is still working on the privacy sandbox for Chrome (here’s the timeline), which it’s been letting developers test for about a year. It says it has received feedback from hundreds of companies that helped shape its approach.

Apple’s ATT (App Tracking Transparency) warning.

Privacy Sandbox is Google’s answer to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT), which the iPhone maker introduced in iOS 14.5. The feature requires user consent to track them across other apps and websites. Google dismisses ATT as a “blunt approach” because it doesn’t offer app developers and advertisers an alternative way to replace lost revenue with cookie-based targeting.

Privacy vs. advertising is an arms race. When platforms like iOS block old ways of profiting from advertising, advertisers can (and do) resort to fingerprinting: the collection of seemingly innocent device information that, when pieced together, can identify you almost as well as cookies. Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect and prevent. Google hopes Privacy Sandbox will strike the right balance between privacy and advertiser/developer revenue.

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According to Google, the Privacy Sandbox Beta will be rolled out gradually, starting with “a small percentage of Android 13 devices” and expanding from there. A notification will appear on your device inviting you to join the beta if selected. After agreeing, you can visit the new privacy sandbox section in your device’s settings menu to view tracked topics and opt out individually. You can also exit the program via the menu.