Google plans to curtail cross app tracking on Android smartphones

By: Rob Corbidge, 17 February 2022

Following from Apple's lead, Google has revealed it also plans to place greater control on protecting users' smartphone privacy, but it hasn't revealed just how it will do it

Google has announced it will introduce new privacy restrictions to limit tracking across apps on Android smartphones, in a move that is largely in anticipation of the privacy legislation being mooted in a number of jurisdictions.

A potential loser from this is of course Facebook, now known as Meta, which admitted during the recent annual report season that Apple's app tracking opt-out had cost it $10bn in advertising revenue. The same effect in the Android would obviously be much much larger, given the global prevalence of Android phones against Apple's much smaller market share.

Specifically, Google said it was looking at privacy-first replacements for the alphanumeric identifiers associated with each and every smartphone.

In the announcement , Google referenced Apple's move without naming them: "We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers. We believe 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."

Google did however helpfully link to a study on Apple's privacy controls by former Apple engineers, a study that concluded they didn't work so well. 

Footprints in the sand.

Footprints in the sand.

The fact is that each of the Big Tech businesses must protect itself in what is becoming a fairly hostile regulatory environment, especially in Europe. Europe has no titan-sized tech champion of its own, and some of the US companies must feel they are paying for this inadequacy, even as the primary motivation for such regulation remains consumer protection.

There's also little doubt Facebook will be concerned at the move - even absent of any actual detail. In many respects, Facebook is the most exposed of the Big Tech companies to such moves, with its presence in so many apps and so much of its revenue gained from its ability to target users with advertising.

Similar to the recent approach the business has adopted with its hastily revised plans to phase out third-party cookies, "the privacy sandbox", Google is trying to shape the smartphone privacy discussion along the lines of what is best for the industry and for users, and is attempting to be seen as a neutral player. Whether this attempt to appear neutral survives the regulatory scrutiny that is likely coming down the tracks remains to be seen.

"The Privacy Sandbox on Android is an important part of our mission to raise the bar for user privacy, while giving developers and businesses the tools they need to succeed on mobile. We look forward to working with the industry on this journey," Anthony Chavez, VP of Product Management, Android Security & Privacy concludes.