Blocking cross-app tracking may be possible on Android phones

Cindy F. Cape

Google has announced plans for blocking cross-app tracking on Android phones, following Apple’s lead on iPhones, claims a new report today.

However, there are a number of problems with the report, suggesting it may be a case of ‘The headline giveth, and the small print taketh away’ …

The WSJ‘s headline is Google Plans to Curtail Cross-App Tracking on Android Phones, and the opening begins confidently enough.

Google plans to adopt new privacy restrictions to curtail tracking across apps on Android smartphones, following Apple Inc. in putting restraints on an advertising industry that has covertly collected data across billions of mobile devices.

Google’s plans for Android could hasten an end to more than a decade of advertising practices across smartphones in which companies including Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook layered their code into hundreds of thousands of apps to track consumer behavior.

However, the detail doesn’t necessarily support this rosy view, suggesting that Google’s own changes may be more limited, and more advertiser-friendly.

First, nothing will change for ‘at least two years.’ Google says this is because it wants to give the ad industry time to adapt before making the change.

Second, Google hasn’t actually revealed any details of the planned changes, with Android security and privacy lead Anthony Chavez saying that it will depend on the outcome of a consultation process.

“We don’t think there should be a forced choice between privacy and developers building their business,” said Chavez […]

Google will collect feedback on future proposals from developers, privacy advocates, regulators and other interested parties in the coming months and begin beta-testing proposed changes by year-end. It will scale up its testing in 2023, he said. 

Third, Google wants to develop an alternative way to keep advertisers happy – and its approach sounds an awful lot like the system Apple lets users switch off: the equivalent of Apple’s IDFA.

Google said that the app-tracking replacements it plans to develop for mobile phones will work similarly to those it is proposing for web browsers, where it plans to replace user-tracking technology called third-party cookies. In one proposed replacement, users’ Android devices will track their app usage and analyze it on their devices, rather than sending raw usage information to outside companies. The phones will then tell third parties the user’s interests so they can be targeted with relevant ads without the advertisers knowing that user’s smartphone identifier.

Though our sister site 9to5Google got a little more detail from the company, with Google saying that it won’t use the company’s current IDFA equivalent.

It starts with new privacy-preserving APIs that limit which user data gets shared with third parties and don’t use cross-party identifiers, like Android’s advertising ID (AdID). Like on the web, this includes Topics where apps show relevant ads based on your recent interests, while FLEDGE “enables on-device auctions by the browser, to choose relevant ads from websites the user has previously visited.” There’s also attribution reporting to measure campaign performance.

It seems we’ll have to wait a while to find out whether the headline claim is justified by the actual replacement policies.

Photo: Daniel Romero/Unsplash

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Blocking cross-app tracking may be possible on Android phones, following iPhone example

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