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Can you limit web trackers on Android, long before Google does it for you?

Being tracked by apps has become part of the collective consciousness since the conversation began early last year. In many ways, Apple has fanned the fire by deciding to give iPhone users the choice to restrict apps that track their movements not only inside, but on other apps as well. More and more users began to realize how their data was being tracked and collected, mostly without their permission, to serve ads.

Apple and Facebook (before their name became Meta) got into a war of words over the app tracking transparency feature early last year. Now, iPhone users have the choice to allow apps to track them or deny them, a framework that was not available until now. There was pressure on Google to respond.

The new Android Privacy Sandbox, which Google is rolling out (and it will take some time, mind you) wants to reduce user data tracking, but still wants to keep ads in place. And that’s about it. This puzzle remains to be put together. In the summer of 2021, Google talked about hiding advertising IDs if users don’t want to be tracked. While we expected a stricter framework for Android phones, Google also wants to keep advertisers on its side.

Read also : Google is planning a new Privacy Sandbox on Android, but it’s still a long way off

Your data, but without your permission

The web trackers that apps and platforms have used over the years to keep tabs on what you’re looking for never really asked for your permission or consent. If all of these measures were in place, the onus was on the user to find them placed deep within apps and settings. Most users either didn’t know or just didn’t bother to put in the effort.

“Some websites not only store your user data, but may also sell it to advertising companies looking to target you with relevant products,” says security firm Norton. They also point out that Facebook tracks about 15% of all web traffic, Amazon tracks about 17% of web traffic, while Google tracks up to 80% of all online traffic.

These trackers collect information about what you browse or buy, what services you access on the Internet, and what your most visited websites are. The simple mission – to use this unique data to be able to serve you targeted advertising, a billion dollar and rapidly growing industry. They also collect this data for usage metrics and monitor the usability of a website.

Apple gave iPhone users the option to opt-in or opt-out, a choice that should have been available on smart platforms a long time ago. Android doesn’t seem to be taking a similar approach yet.

A fine line between use and abuse

Why did we say “abuse” earlier? Think about it: have most apps or web platforms asked for your permission to keep an eye out while you’re window shopping for an e-commerce app, or what websites you visit regularly? No. Yet on apps like Facebook and Instagram, to name a few, the ads for products you’d want to buy looked suspiciously like something you’d watch on a shopping website a few days (or in some cases, a few hours) since.

How did that happen ? It is not a coincidence. You are being tracked without your permission, and this has become a major data privacy question: how can data be collected?

“There are indeed a few areas of concern with data tracking, most of which relate to the privacy and security of our data and transparency around where user data is stored and who has access to it. , the more complacent we are about sharing our data, the more our data is out of our hands,” Norton’s security guidelines for web tracking state.

Over the years, web browsers have included a “do not track” option, although websites often bypass it. Yet, the problem is more prevalent on smartphones and the apps you use on the phone. Is there a solution?

Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature presents users with prompts, listing the option to allow or block apps from tracking you. If you choose to block, these apps will not be able to track you to other websites and apps. It is broad in its application and effectively locks your data privacy.

“Ad tracking cookies and other tools help companies determine which ads are performing best, as well as which ads to include in other digital and email marketing campaigns. Although this is often incredibly practical, it raises important questions about digital privacy,” says security firm AVG.

What can Android users do?

The problem is that Android, the smartphone platform used by billions of people around the world, has nothing powerful to stop apps from collecting your data to serve you ads you may not want. , nor will there be for the foreseeable future. Android 12, which rolled out last year, allows users to remove their unique advertising ID to help get rid of trackers. Android 12 will also disable access permissions for apps you haven’t used in a while. Still, nothing completely locks tracking like iPhones can.

Android had registered a 71.09% share among smartphone operating systems and by May last year had already registered 3 billion users worldwide. That’s a lot of data for apps to collect. Third-party apps come to the rescue.

DuckDuckGo shows the way forward

DuckDuckGo, a company known for its privacy-focused search engine and web browser apps, has now rolled out an add-on for the DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser app for Android phones. Inside the browser is a very handy tool called App Tracking Protection for Android. It’s similar in implementation to how Apple makes trackers on iPhones.

DuckDuckGo says App Tracking Protection for Android will work in the background and block data transfer requests from apps you’ve banned from tracking you. It will also work when your phone is idle.

In our experience, DuckDuckGo regularly blocks between 8,000 and 10,000 tracking attempts on apps on an Android phone, including dozens of tracking attempts on apps that are used sporadically or that sit idle for a while. You can choose to manually disable Tracking Prevention on specific apps – we chose not to and didn’t notice any broken functionality on any app, including web browsers, cloud storage and sync, messaging apps, social media, and music streaming apps, for example.

Although the “Tracking Protection” feature of the DuckDuckGo app is free, it is still in beta phase. Not that that’s much of a problem, given its threat-blocking prowess, but you might have to wait a while to access it – we queued up on two Android phones in November as early as that feature was made available, and while one phone gained access in December, the other is still waiting its turn.

AdGuard is an alternative worthy of your time

You should not trust any app listed on the Google Play Store claiming to be your friend to block web trackers designed for serving ads. Most of them contain malware and are themselves malicious. You can, however, try AdGuard Ad Blocker – there is a free version with limited functionality and a paid version which costs around 59 per month (it will work on these devices – Android, iPhone, Windows PC and Mac).

It starts with a simple toggle to turn that on or off, but you’ll have a bunch of settings available, if that’s what you like. This will prevent trackers from accumulating data in the apps you use, and also has a built-in ad blocker feature that will reduce the annoyance that pop-ups, video ads and banner ads tend to cause – in browsers and also in apps, although the latter can be a bit of a “hit and miss”, depending on the apps.


  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Vishal Mathur is technology editor for Hindustan Times. When he doesn’t understand technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.
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