Tech

Google may copy Apple with anti-tracking option in Android

Apple has led the way with App Tracking Transparency, which requires apps to request permission to track users across apps and the web.

Google Pixel 3 XL smartphone on a white background.
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Google may implement a do-not-track privacy option in a future version of Android, according to Bloomberg. The feature would be similar to iOS 14's upcoming App Tracking Transparency, a new policy that will require app developers request permission from users before they can be tracked across apps and websites.

Tech companies have been under pressure to protect their users from abusive collection of personal data, and most have responded with a trickle of new protections. But Google is in a tough position because the majority of its revenue comes from online advertisements that are more valuable the more data that it can use to target them at individuals.

App tracking — The fundamental idea behind app-based tracking is that an advertiser can capture the unique identifier associated with a person's phone and watch them move between apps and websites. Knowing that information can help advertisers target ads, but also measure effectiveness because they can see when a person saw an ad inside an app and then went on to buy a product from the company's mobile site.

Facebook has been fighting to stop Apple from implementing App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 because the change could significantly hurt the value of its advertisements. It says that small businesses who use Facebook for advertising will also be harmed because they'll have less insight on whether or not their ads are working. And app developers who use Facebook's ad network to monetize will similarly feel a squeeze. But of course it's also fighting in self-interest since the company, like Google, is an advertising-based business. Facebook would love nothing more than to own a platform like iOS so that it can do whatever it wants — in fact, it's trying to make Oculus take off for this very reason.

Path of least revenue loss — Google's version would likely be less severe than App Tracking Transparency, maybe including opt-out options in Android's settings menu, and limiting collection of certain types of information it doesn't feel are valuable for targeting. The company has made other moves to improve privacy on the web recently, including by allowing advertisers to target groups of users rather than individuals.

Ultimately, though, all these companies will make decisions based on whether or not it hurts their revenue. Apple still makes Google the default search engine in Safari even though everyone — including Apple — knows that Google collects and uses all that search data for targeting. Apple could switch to DuckDuckGo as the default, but Google pays a massive $12 billion per year for the privilege of being the default. Blocking apps from collecting data is fine for Apple though, because it itself doesn't make money from advertising.

Still, the move by Apple to make tracking opt-in is undeniably a good one. Many consumers would probably be fine with having their data collected in exchange for free services, but it's the fact that most people don't understand how much is collected on them that breeds distrust. Tech companies spent years developing sophisticated ways of identifying and tracking people across the web, but never made it easy to opt-out because that wasn't in their interest.