At the end of April, Apple’s introduction of App Tracking Transparency tools shook the advertising industry to its core. iPhone and iPad owners could now stop apps from tracking their behavior and using their data for personalized advertising. Since the new privacy controls launched, almost $10 billion has been wiped from the revenues of Snap, Meta Platform’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Now, a similar tool is coming to Google’s Android operating system—although not from Google itself. Privacy-focused tech company DuckDuckGo, which started life as a private search engine, is adding the ability to block hidden trackers to its Android app. The feature, dubbed “App Tracking Protection for Android,” is rolling out in beta from today and aims to mimic Apple’s iOS controls. “The idea is we block this data collection from happening from the apps the trackers don’t own,” says Peter Dolanjski, a director of product at DuckDuckGo. “You should see far fewer creepy ads following you around online.”
The vast majority of apps have third-party trackers tucked away in their code. These trackers monitor your behavior across different apps and help create profiles about you that can include what you buy, demographic data, and other information that can be used to serve you personalized ads. DuckDuckGo says its analysis of popular free Android apps shows more than 96 percent of them contain trackers. Blocking these trackers means Facebook and Google, whose trackers are some of the most prominent, can’t send data back to the mothership—neither will the dozens of advertising networks you’ve never heard of.
From a user perspective, blocking trackers with DuckDuckGo’s tool is straightforward. App Tracking Protection appears as an option in the settings menu of its Android app. For now, you’ll see the option to get on a waitlist to access it. But once turned on, the feature shows the total number of trackers blocked in the last week and gives a breakdown of what’s been blocked in each app recently. Open up the app of the Daily Mail, one of the world’s largest news websites, and DuckDuckGo will instantly register that it is blocking trackers from Google, Amazon, WarnerMedia, Adobe, and advertising company Taboola. An example from DuckDuckGo showed more than 60 apps had tracked a test phone thousands of times in the last seven days.
My own experience bore that out. Using a box-fresh Google Pixel 6 Pro, I installed 36 popular free apps—some estimates claim people install around 40 apps on their phones—and logged into around half of them. These included the McDonald’s app, LinkedIn, Facebook, Amazon, and BBC Sounds. Then, with a preview of DuckDuckGo’s Android tracker blocking turned on, I left the phone alone for four days and didn’t use it at all. In 96 hours, 23 of these apps had made more than 630 tracking attempts in the background.
Using your phone on a daily basis—opening and interacting with apps—sees a lot more attempted tracking. When I opened the McDonald’s app, trackers from Adobe, cloud software firm New Relic, Google, emotion-tracking firm Apptentive, and mobile analytics company Kochava tried to collect data about me. Opening the eBay and Uber apps—but not logging into them—was enough to trigger Google trackers.
At the moment, the tracker blocker doesn’t show what data each tracker is trying to send, but Dolanjski says a future version will show what broad categories of information each commonly tries to access. He adds that in testing the company has found some trackers collecting exact GPS coordinates and email addresses.
The beta of App Tracking Protection for Android is limited. It doesn’t block trackers in all apps, and browsers aren’t included, as they may consider the websites people visit to be trackers themselves. In addition, DuckDuckGo says it has found some apps require tracking to be turned on to function; for this reason, it gives mobile games a pass. While the tool blocks Facebook trackers across other apps, it doesn’t support tracker-blocking in the Facebook app itself. In DuckDuckGo’s settings, you can whitelist any other apps that don’t function properly with App Tracking Protection turned on.
The introduction of App Tracking Protection for Android comes at a time when ATT has pushed advertisers to Android, while also benefiting Apple. “ATT meaningfully changed how advertisers are able to target ads on some platforms,” says Andy Taylor, vice president of research at performance marketing company Tinuiti. The company’s own ads data shows Facebook advertising on Android grew 86 percent in September, while iOS growth lagged behind at 12 percent. At the same time, Apple’s ad business has tripled its market share, according to an analysis from the Financial Times. Around 54 percent of people have chosen not to be tracked using ATT, data from mobile marketing analytics firm AppsFlyer shows.
DuckDuckGo’s system is unlikely to have an impact anywhere near that scale and is more of a blunt tool. Unlike Apple, the company doesn’t own the infrastructure—the phones people use or the underlying operating systems—to enforce wholesale changes. Each time an app wants to track you, iOS presents you with a question: Do you want this app to track you? When you opt out, your device transmits the IDFA sent to advertisers as a series of zeros—essentially preventing them from tracking you. DuckDuckGo doesn’t have this luxury; its privacy browser app is installed on your phone like any other from the Google Play Store.
To make App Tracking Protection work, DuckDuckGo runs the same set of device permissions as a virtual private network (VPN). Dolanjski says that while Android phones will show the DuckDuckGo app as a VPN, it doesn’t work in this way: no data is transferred off your phone, and the network runs locally. In essence, the system blocks apps from making connections to the servers used for tracking. (When some trackers can’t communicate with their servers they will make repeated attempts to do so, Dolanjski says, which can cause certain tracker counts to swell within the app. He adds the company has seen no impact on battery life).
At the time of writing, Google had not responded to a request for comment on apps using VPN configurations to block trackers across Android. Other apps on the Google Play Store—including Jumbo Privacy, a VPN app by Samsung, and Blokada—already use similar methods to block trackers, although they also offer wider privacy-focused tools and don’t act as browsers.
Google itself has gradually added more privacy controls in Android, including some that apply to apps. The company allows users to reset their ad IDs and to opt out of personalized ads. Following the launch of iOS 14.5, Google said that Android owners who opt out of personalized advertising will see their unique identifiers stripped to a series of zeroes—as is the case for iPhone owners who turn off tracking. The change is already rolling out on phones using Android 12 and will be made more widely available on other Android devices early next year.
But for many people, the planned Android changes may not be enough. They don’t go as far as Apple’s alterations. DuckDuckGo’s Dolanjski argues that there’s very little transparency around the trackers currently employed in the apps people use every single day and that most people would be shocked at the amount they are tracked. For him, blocking trackers on Android is the next step in giving people more control over how companies handle their data. “It is going to dramatically reduce how much information these third-party companies get about you,” he says.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.