How to prevent app-tracking on Android phones even as Google drags its feet?

When Apple rolled out its App Tracking Transparency controls with iOS for iPhones back in April, Facebook, now Meta, was the most vocal critic of the move.

Apple’s idea is simple – give users a clear choice of whether they wish to allow apps installed on their iPhones to track their usage across other apps and websites to eventually serve targeted advertising.

Facebook, which has a fair share of interest in serving you with targeted advertising, saw it as the end of the free run with data, as did many other apps and platforms.

Android phones don’t have anything similar just yet, which leaves millions of users’ data free for tracking by apps that seek to collect every bit of data to create your detailed profile.

Android has 71.09% share among smartphone operating systems and as of May this year, had already clocked 3 billion users globally. That’s a lot of data for apps to collect.

DuckDuckGo, the solitary soldier

DuckDuckGo may have given them a handy tool, at least till Google finally gets its act together. DuckDuckGo, a company best known for a privacy-focused search engine and web browser apps, has now rolled out an add-on for the DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser app for Android phones.

The feature called App Tracking Protection for Android is similar in implementation to how Apple does it on iOS for iPhones. You’ll be alerted and asked to make a choice when it detects an app trying to send data from your phone to a third-party platform.

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DuckDuckGo says the App Tracking Protection for Android feature will work in the background, and block data-transfer requests from apps that you have disallowed from tracking you. It will work when your phone is idle, too. “Across all your apps, your personal data is being sent to dozens of third-party companies, thousands of times per week. This data enables tracking networks such as Facebook and Google to create even more detailed digital profiles on you,” says the company.

The limitation with the DuckDuckGo solution is that it makes no attempt to identify between communication that is essential for certain apps as well as certain functionality and the nefarious ones that would include sending your data out for personalised advertisements on apps.

The ability to distinguish traffic could be enhanced with the coming updates, but even now, you get a fair idea of what the apps in your phone are up to.

Android does not have a tracking-prevention feature. The only trusted app we can really recommend is DuckDuckGo. If you happen to find apps on Google Play Store that claim to lock down Android and prevent apps from tracking you, take that with a pinch of salt. That will most likely be malware, waiting to lure you into a false sense of security, before compromising your phone’s data.

You can’t imagine how you’re being tracked

The data is worrying. Privacy firm AppCensus pointed out in a research last year that most popular apps for Android phones have trackers built into the code. This is also referred to as SDK or software development kit. They say the most popular SDKs for analytics and advertising are Google Mobile services (found 93% of apps tested), Firebase (83%), Facebook (62%) and Google Ads (55%).

When an app sends out data from your phone without your permission, it is communicating with a recipient of that data. The research also suggests among all the third-party recipient platforms, the most popular deliverers of fresh data from unsuspecting users are Google (68%) and Facebook (45%).

Google needs to act fast

Google did reconfigure how Advertising IDs work on Android phones. But why is Google dragging its feet on the implementation of what it showcased in June? Back then, the company had said that an update for Google Play Services in late 2021 will enable controls for users to choose whether they want any app to track them or not.

Google has not released an update since, indicating any fresh timelines.

To be fair, there’s still some time left this year, and we could yet see the update in the coming days. First, phones with Android 12 will get the new controls before it is expanded to other Android iterations next year.

Facebook was the most vocal critic of the App Tracking Transparency feature for iPhones. It was designed to stop what the social media giant and a lot of other apps and online platforms have done over the years – collect all sorts of user data without explicit permission. Why else do you think Facebook is able to precisely show you advertisements of things that, say, you searched for on a shopping website just a few hours ago?

Apple did set the privacy agenda, and Google is yet to follow through on the talk since. An advertising technology company Lotame released a report last month that indicates tech platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Snap lost as much as $10 billion in the two quarters since iPhone users got the controls with iOS 14.5 in April (we’ve had iOS 15 available since then).

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