Google plans new Privacy Sandbox on Android, but it’s still a long way off

Published on Feb 16, 2022 06:34 PM IST

There was pressure on Google after Apple rolled out the ‘App Tracking Transparency’ data privacy measure for iPhones early last year

 (HT photo)
(HT photo)

Google has outlined new tools that will limit sharing of user data with third parties on Android phones for the purpose of serving targeted advertising. This will likely be the biggest step forward for Android as a platform, allowing users more control over allowing or rejecting tracking by apps and web platforms. Yet, Google is taking a lesser straightforward approach, unlike Apple’s aggressive clampdown on apps tracking user data without consent.

Google’s new Privacy Sandbox on Android will adopt a restrained approach while keeping advertisers onside. It is being positioned as a long-drawn implementation and is positioned as a “multi-year initiative”. In a way, there was pressure to respond after Apple rolled out the ‘App Tracking Transparency’ data privacy measure for iPhones early last year.

Google has promised to design new tech for advertisers and users, but there isn’t any immediacy for implementation. The tech giant says that while they design and test new solutions that allow advertisers access to user data while stripping away identifiers to maintain privacy, they’ll continue to support existing ad platforms for at least two years. It is expected that the Privacy Sandbox will roll out for beta testing by the end of 2022.

“Today, we’re announcing a multi-year initiative to build the Privacy Sandbox on Android, with the goal of introducing new, more private advertising solutions. Specifically, these solutions will limit sharing of user data with third parties and operate without cross-app identifiers, including Advertising ID,” says Anthony Chavez, VP of Product Management, Android Security & Privacy at Google.

The tech giant says the solutions they will work on over the next few months will focus on privacy-preserving tech that do not need identifiers, and limits user data collection. This will also reduce chances of data collection without consent of the user, a problem magnified over the years.

A part of the new solutions will be Topics, something we had covered last month, after Google proposed it as a replacement for tracking cooking in web browsers such as Chrome. Topics will essentially be buckets of interest based on a user’s browsing history, which they’ll share with other users. Advertisers will be able to send online ads based on these buckets, and not specific user behaviour.

Also Read: Apple’s privacy push: Understanding its deep impact on Meta, other platforms

The way Privacy Sandbox on Android will function is that if an Android phone user chooses to not allow an app to track their web browsing history and how they use other apps, any trackers attached with the app that hasn’t been given consent will be allowed access only to data that will not include any cross-app identifiers, device identifiers or an advertising ID that can be used later to map identified usage back to your phone.

This is the next step to the plans Google had announced last year – when users opt out of interest-based advertising or ads personalisation, their advertising ID will be removed and replaced with a string of zeros. That change began rolling out with Google Play services then itself.

The differences with Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature come across clearly. Apple’s approach is simple – if a user allows any app on their iPhone to track their data, then the app can track the data. If a user doesn’t provide consent and selects the “Ask App Not to Track” option from the pop-up that’ll show up once (after first install, or after a major update), then that app gets absolutely no access to any user data.

That had enraged Meta (then Facebook), which saw its first big challenge after years of collecting user data for advertising, without ever asking for their consent. The results of the clampdown on non-consented data collection showed in Meta’s latest numbers and outlook, with the company claiming it is looking at an estimated $10 billion hit in advertising revenues in 2022.

Facebook’s daily active users have also declined for the first time in 18 years, which indicates a larger problem for the platform (this could also point to eroding trust amidst users), and blaming Apple alone wouldn’t really provide the complete picture. At the same time, ad impressions and ad prices have increased through 2021 – the latter seeing a $24 increase year-on-year.

Also Read: Google proposes Topics API to replace tracking cookies as FLoC is abandoned

Google notes what Apple has done with ATT for iOS on iPhones, but without naming them. “We realise that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers,” says Chavez.

But Google believes that the lack of any alternatives will hurt developer businesses and could force the search for alternative methods that bypass restrictions.

Yet, users are appreciating Apple’s hard crackdown on non-consented data tracking by apps, such as Facebook.

In India, the monthly opt-in rate for Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to stop apps tracking users is 24%, according to analytics firm Flurry, which surveyed 5.3 million iPhones updated with iOS 14.5 or the new versions. In the US, it is slightly lower at 18%. Global data by AppFlyer says that 46% of all iPhone users worldwide, who saw an ATT prompt on their phone for any app they used, opted out of being tracked.

Google is already in talks with developers to design the new advertising solutions, including Snap Inc., Duolingo, Voodoo and Activision Blizzard.

App developers are working with Google on these changes.

“We value Google’s collaborative approach and their initiative to build new Android capabilities to improve user privacy, and look forward to partnering with them,” Eric Wood, SVP of Strategic Partnerships at Activision Blizzard, told HT in a statement.

“It’s great they are involving developers in the process early to make sure we have time to react and participate in such an important change,” said Alex Pelletier-Normand, CEO of Rovio, the makers of the popular Angry Bird games.

The new ad privacy tech will be released as developer previews through the year, while the beta version, which will give us clearer contours of how Privacy Sandbox on Android will work, is expected to land before the end of the year.


    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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