Google’s Toothless Android Privacy Sandbox

Anthony Chavez of Google:

We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers. We believe that — without first providing a privacy-preserving alternative path — such approaches can be ineffective and lead to worse outcomes for user privacy and developer businesses.

Our goal with the Privacy Sandbox on Android is to 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. While we design, build and test these new solutions, we plan to support existing ads platform features for at least two years, and we intend to provide substantial notice ahead of any future changes.

The only surprise here is that Google refers to a plural “other platforms”. Maybe it is keeping its options open for a reunion tour from BlackBerry, Palm, and Windows. That is generous.

I am curious about how Google plans to ensure user privacy more effectively than App Tracking Transparency is able to. We know that Apple’s solution is more policy-based than it is a guarantee, and we know it has many gaps. If a more reliable solution is in the cards, I am all ears — though why it would come from a company with a business model built around abusing privacy seems unlikely.

The information Google has released so far needs more explanation, but it is more-or-less an Android version of the questionable Topics plan for targeting ads in Chrome.

Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica:

That bit about being a sandbox for “compatible SDKs” is the big catch for the SDK Runtime and the Android Privacy Sandbox. It’s optional. Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox, even if it is a watered-down privacy solution, is at least starting with the progress of blocking third-party cookies. The existing tracking methods in Chrome will be blocked, and Google is offering an alternative solution that will have some (again, watered-down) privacy benefits. Google has not announced plans to block or limit any existing tracking techniques on Android. Android apps have a lot more privileges than a website, and developers could choose to ignore this and include an ad SDK that does not use the SDK sandbox.

I am finding it hard not to read the details as an overcomplicated way to meet in the middle without clear benefits. Google’s market dominating advertising business means regulators will surely raise concerns if any Android ad tech companies are affected by more meaningful changes, so Google must take a more cautious approach. But that means the result will likely be ineffective for privacy.

Shoshana Wodinsky, Gizmodo:

The weirdest part about our “privacy,” as far as our devices are concerned, is that the way you define the word is pretty tied to your finances. Just ask Google.

The lesson Google and Facebook learned from Apple’s relentless marketing around privacy is not that their business models are based on fundamentally unethical principles. They learned they simply need to find a definition of “privacy” that works for their business.