Android 12’s New Privacy Features Still Don’t Go Far Enough
Google unveiled Android 12 at its annual I/O event, outlining all the fine details we should see in the next major version of the smartphone operating system. As usual, the company detailed the exterior UI changes, which are huge this time around, and under the hood changes that will shape the next version of Android.
Among the big changes are new privacy features to give you more control over personal data. Relative to previous privacy-related features, this a big improvement, but the company still has a long way to go. Here’s why.
Android 12 Privacy Features
No doubt, the revamped Android 12 UI stole the show at I/O. Many thanks to the new overhauled look courtesy of Material You, a new design language by Google which succeeds Material Design that arrived on the scene in 2014. But besides the UI overhaul and other exciting Android 12 features, Google also made fundamental changes to privacy matters.
Like previous versions of Android, Google re-imagined different ways of increasing consumer privacy on its mobile OS. The new privacy features revolve around four specific things: transparency, control, data minimization, and the Privacy Compute Core.
The new Android 12 privacy features include:
- Privacy Dashboard: The all-new privacy dashboard provides you with all the nitty-gritty details on what apps used your most sensitive sensor data from the microphone, camera, and GPS. Android 12 will give a concise 24-hour timeline for all the apps that accessed your camera, microphone, and location data. On the other hand, developers will provide more context to their app’s data access needs using a new permission intent API.
- Microphone and camera indicators: Android 12 will be more transparent on mic and camera usage by apps. You will immediately know when an app accesses your mic or camera data through new indicators that’ll be shown on the status bar.
- A quick way to block camera and microphone: Android 12 includes new camera and microphone toggles that allow you to instantly block system-wide access to your camera and mic from the Quick Settings menu. The only thing that will be excepted is emergency calls, according to the company, for safety reasons.
- Even more control over location data: Google is adding modular controls over your location data. Starting with Android 12, you can choose to share either your precise location or just an approximate location. The new options are an addition to other modular controls added previously, including sharing location only while using the app or just in a particular session.
- Clipboard read alerts: When you copy text on Android 12 to paste it somewhere else, Android will notify you if an app reads the clipboard content.
- Forced app hibernation: In addition to revoking granted permissions automatically, as first seen in Android 11, Android 12 will force-stop apps that have not been used for “a few months” for safety and performance optimization. App hibernation will also help save on storage use by deleting an app’s temporary files.
- Easy Guest Mode switching: Guest Mode has been available on Android since version 5.0 (Lollipop). Google is only giving the feature prominence in Android 12, allowing an easy switch when sharing devices. Guest Mode will now reside on the lock screen on Android Go devices.
- Nearby device permission: Not all external devices need location data. Android 12 adds a new permission that nearby devices, like wireless headphones and smartwatches, will use instead of requesting location data to connect.
- Privacy Policies: Google introduces new policies covering scoped storage and package visibility introduced in Android 11. Google will only allow apps that meet specific criteria to access and manage the contents of external shared storage outside their directories. If an app does not meet the criteria, developers will be forced to remove the app’s manifesting first before publishing it on Google Play Store.
- Android’s Private Compute Core: This is an OS-level sandbox that isolates specific sensitive data and activities from the rest of the system. Intelligent features like Live Caption, Now Playing, and Smart Reply work locally and, as such, don’t need access to the network. Android 12 ensures that data related to such locally-processed intelligent features don’t get outside the system, hopefully not even Google itself.
Android 12 Builds on Previous Privacy Features
As seen from both regulators and consumers worldwide, privacy is increasingly becoming a hot topic. Google didn’t forget to cool down the minds of privacy freaks, at least to some extent.
Most of Android 12’s new privacy features build upon the ones introduced in preceding versions. Google is further refining previous privacy features to give users more control over their data.
For instance, the new enforcement policy on scoped storage will force developers to include functionality that enables apps to access external storage outside their storage directory only if necessary.
That way, simple apps shouldn’t have unnecessary access to contents in other app folders. And developers must demonstrate why their apps require access to external storage to list their apps on Google Play if they want to have such functionality.
All of these changes have made Android 12 one of the company’s most significant privacy improvements.
Related: How to Try the Android 12 Beta Now
Android Still Has a Long Way to Go
So far, so good. Google has done a pretty commendable job in privacy matters in Android 12, and the company calls it its “most ambitious privacy release to date.” While that is certainly true, there are still some missing pieces.
Most notably, Android 12 doesn’t include a way for you to choose whether apps should or shouldn’t track your activities on other apps and websites. And there’s no way to tell what type of data different apps collect and how they use it, in addition to the most obvious—advertising.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Because this is roughly what Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature and so-called privacy nutrition labels are all about.
That would make Android even more privacy-conscious. However, given Google is also in the data tracking business, the company will have to evaluate its choices carefully before pulling a similar trigger to Apple’s.
The Future of Android and Privacy
Android undoubtedly still has a long way to go around privacy matters. But it’s by design and not accidental that Google always trails behind American tech arch-rival Apple on privacy. Essentially, this is because Google is also involved in the so-called data brokerage business and makes bank from its advertising business.
According to CNBC, Google’s advertising revenue rose from $33.76 billion in Q1, 2020, to $44.68 billion in Q1, 2021. But as more consumers and regulatory bodies push for privacy, ultimately, users will have more control of their data in the future.
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June 4, 2021 at 01:09PM