DuckDuckGo launches tool to shield Android users from app trackers

App Tracking Protection (ATP) is now available to Android users as DuckDuckGo, a tech company focused on privacy, has commenced its beta phase, as per a post on the company’s blog. DuckDuckGo announced that the “free” feature, which will be available through its app, will block trackers it identifies in apps from third-party companies (for example, Google in Nike’s app), the post added.

Users can register themselves for the waitlist if they want to be a part of this experiment, and they will not have to share any personal information. The company revealed that it is opening up the feature to new users every week.

The feature is similar to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency which lets iOS users decide whether they want to allow third-party app tracking or not. It was reported that most users chose to opt out of tracking with major social media platforms losing billions of dollars in revenue.

Android’s wide base of users makes this a significant step as it can have a far-reaching impact on the revenue of social media companies. On the other hand, it will provide users with a choice over how their data is tracked and processed by companies.

Here’s what happens when you enable ATP

The company writes that the feature will run in the background once it is enabled by users. This is how it detailed the process:

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  • The DuckDuckGo app will prevent Android apps from sending data to third-party tracking companies found in its app tracker dataset.
  • ATP will run as a virtual private network (VPN) even though it is not one. The company clarified that the feature will run on the phone itself and “it will never route app data through an external server”.
  • App tracker dataset will be updated regularly to “identify and protect against new trackers”.
  • Peter Dolanjski, director of product at DuckDuckGo, told WIRED that the company has seen no impact on battery life.
  • Users will be able to procure a real-time view of ATP “blocking trackers as well as which tracking networks they tried to send data to”.
  • They can also whitelist any other apps that don’t function properly with ATP turned on in DuckDuckGo’s settings.
  • The company wrote in its post that there are a small number of apps such as mobile games which have been excluded because they rely on tracking to work properly.

ATP does not block trackers in all apps, and it does not include browsers as it may consider the websites people visit to be trackers themselves, WIRED explained in its report.

“While the tool blocks Facebook trackers across other apps, it doesn’t support tracker-blocking in the Facebook app itself,” the tech magazine said.

The tracker blocker does not display what data each tracker is trying to send as of now but Dolanjski informed WIRED that a future version will show broad categories of information that the tracker commonly tries to access.

Understanding app tracking

Hidden app trackers, or the companies behind them, track everything users do in an app; they can continue to track users even when the app is not in use. “Many of these trackers are designed to record your activity in real time: where you are, what you’re doing, where you’ve been, and even how many hours you sleep at night,” DuckDuckGo wrote in its blog.

Users’ personal data is sent to dozens of third-party companies several times per week. It enables networks like Facebook and Google to create detailed digital profiles on users. The companies then use these profiles to “manipulate what you see online, target you with ads based on your behavior, and even sell your data to other companies like data brokers, advertisers, and governments,” DuckDuckGo explained.

The company found that over 96 percent of the popular free Android apps contained hidden third-party trackers. “Of those, 87% sent data to Google and 68% sent data to Facebook,” it asserted.

Google’s own privacy controls

ATP is not sanctioned by Google but the Alphabet-owned company has been adding more privacy controls in Android.

Privacy Dashboard: Android 12 will include a “Privacy Dashboard” where you can see which apps used potentially sensitive permissions in the past 24 hours. The dashboard breaks down app activity by category— like “Location,” “Camera,” and “Microphone”—and then shows you which apps accessed those mechanisms. And you can adjust or revoke app permissions through the dashboard, WIRED reported.

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DuckDuckGo launches tool to shield Android users from app trackers

Advertising IDs: Google announced changes recently to how it will handle the unique device identifiers that allow marketers to track devices between apps making it harder for Android apps to track users who’ve opted out of receiving personalized ads, The Verge reported. “Google is cutting off access to these “Advertising IDs” after a user opts out, and will show developers a “string of zeros” in its place,” the website wrote.

FLoC: Google also began working on FLoC as an alternative to third-party cookies which the Chrome browser will be phasing out by 2023. These cookies are used to track the online behaviour of users. In a blog post earlier this year, Google said that the Privacy Sandbox it released was to keep up with changing consumer expectations around privacy and that it was experimenting with FLoC to build on its vision. FLoC clusters large groups of people with similar interests. It hides individuals “in the crowd” and uses on-device processing to keep a person’s online history private on the browser.

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