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Google’s ‘Privacy Sandbox’ coming to Android as it tries to balance ads and user privacy

Google is bringing its ‘Privacy Sandbox’ initiative to Android as it tries to balance user privacy and advertising. The new tools will eventually mean the end of the advertising ID on Android devices.

Google is bringing its ‘Privacy Sandbox’ initiative—launched for the Chrome browser in 2019—to Android as it tries to balance user privacy and advertising. Anthony Chavez, VP, Product Management, Android Security & Privacy, said in a blog post that Google will attempt to create “new, more private advertising solutions,” on Android under the initiative. The company has announced similar moves for Chrome as well.

While it is not clear exactly what these technical solutions will look like when they are rolled out, Google will limit sharing of private user data and key identifiers with third-party apps. The existing advertising ID system will likely fade away as well once the new system comes into place.

The advertising identifier is a “unique, user-resettable ID for advertising, provided by Google Play services,” according to the company, and part of all Android devices. Currently, Google lets Android users opt-out of “interest-based advertising or ads personalisation.” In scenarios where a user opts out, the developers get a string of zeros in place of the ad ID. However, the feature is only on Android 12 and is dependent on the user taking action. The upcoming approach will mark a shift away from a user-dependent approach.

Google says it is looking at new technology and tools to ensure that user privacy is protected without harming the free app model, which is largely sustained by advertising. The post adds that Google is not taking a “blunt” approach to tackle apps tracking users, in a clear take on Apple’s approach. The iPhone-maker is giving users the ability to block app developers from tracking their data and usage altogether. It was reported that Apple’s new privacy feature had negatively impacted apps like Facebook, Instagram, which are sustained by advertising.

“We’re already seeing how blunt approaches to improving privacy are driving developers to choose really only between bad options, including workarounds for ad targeting, like fingerprinting. These approaches could also lead to more developers adopting a paid model, which will impact millions of users,” Jessica Martin, Head of Privacy, Google APAC, said in a media briefing.

According to Google’s blog post, ‘Privacy Sandbox’ on Android will help “develop effective and privacy-enhancing advertising solutions, where users know their information is protected, and developers and businesses have the tools to succeed on mobile”.

But these solutions will take time and Google plans to support existing advertising platform features for at least two years. It will also give “substantial notice ahead of any future changes.”

Martin also explained that the technological solutions for Android will be different compared to those being deployed for Chrome. Google plans to do away with third-party cookies on Chrome and will go for a new “Topics” driven approach where the advertisers will get access to the “topics” that a user is interested in, rather than the exact websites they are browsing.

She stressed that while the Privacy Sandbox initiatives for web and Android do share a common vision, there will be differences in implementation. “The idea is to keep processing and key information on the user’s device, which is a similar concept to what was talked about with Chrome. And these technologies will work in the same way for everyone, including Google. The privacy-preserving APIs will be based on privacy-enhancing technologies similar to those being proposed for the open web, but they will be adapted for the means and technologies of the Android platform,” she pointed out.

Google also hinted that the process could take longer, adding that developing a solution like this isn’t necessarily a linear process. It will require feedback, testing, potentially going back to testing, etc, before being finalised.

“It will be complex and require significant time. So the expectation is that the development, testing and iteration of this technology will take two to three years,” Martin explained.

For now, the search giant is letting developers review the “initial design proposals and share feedback” on the Android developer website. It will release developer previews for these new tools over the course of the year and plans a beta release by the end of the year.

The post adds that it has several app developers and partners on board who are all interested in working to improve ads privacy. Google has also said it is “also committed to working closely with regulators,” on the issue.

It has “ordered public commitments for our Privacy Sandbox efforts on the web,” and said it will not give “preferential treatment to Google’s ads products or sites.” These principles will apply to Android as well.


Google relies on advertising ID right now on Android for app tracking. The new Privacy Sandbox features could see this being done away with eventually. (Image credit: Shruti Dhapola/Indian Express)

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