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Android’s new privacy features sure look familiar

Google is once again playing catch-up with Apple.

Multiple Android phones showing various apps and features.
Google’s upcoming Android 12 will have several new privacy features.
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.

Google’s latest attempt to play catch-up to the privacy features in Apple’s iOS was on display again Tuesday, when the company announced details of its Android 12 operating system.

Google is in the middle of its annual I/O developer conference, where it announces advancements in its Android, Assistant, Chrome, Search, and occasionally its hardware offerings. Some of those announcements include new privacy features on Android, features that would be more exciting if they weren’t so familiar: Most of what Google is bringing to Android devices are things that are already on iOS devices, and you have to wonder if Google would be doing them at all if Apple hadn’t done them first.

Nevertheless, Google is presenting its new privacy features as a step it happily took for the sake of its consumers.

“Android 12 is our most ambitious privacy release to date,” the company said on its blog. “Along the way, we have engaged closely with our developer community to build a platform that puts privacy at the forefront while taking into consideration the impact on developers.”

So, what will Android users be getting that iPhone users already have?

  • Phones will have visual indicators when cameras or microphones are being used. Those are nice if you’re paranoid that apps are watching or listening to you when you’re not aware, though useless if you’re so paranoid that you won’t believe the indicators in the first place.
  • Android will tell users when apps use information from their clipboards. That is, when you copy something (say, your password from a password manager app) and then paste it into something else (like the app that is asking for your password), Android will tell you that your clipboard is being accessed. That might sound like a minor thing, but apps having secret access to user clipboards and users lacking the ability to restrict clipboard permissions have been a security issue for a while, especially considering the sensitive information people might have on them (like passwords).
  • Android is also giving users the option to give apps access to their approximate location. Previously, apps got their precise location only, even if the app didn’t need such specific information to function. Precise location data is great for apps like Uber when you want to tell your driver exactly where you are and where you want to go, but location data companies have been caught taking advantage of it and even selling it to military contractors.

One nice thing that Android 12 will have that iOS doesn’t: a privacy dashboard that tells users which apps have accessed which permissions and when. According to Google’s mock-ups, users can see a list of which apps have used things like their location data, camera, and microphone. Apple’s iOS does this to a certain extent (you can see which apps have used your locations services within the last 24 hours), but not for all permissions, and it’s not laid out as simply and cleanly as Android’s.

Location usage is now in a handy list.

But what’s perhaps most notable is the iOS 14 privacy features Android 12 won’t have. These include so-called “privacy nutrition labels,” which are of dubious value to consumers, but still indicate that it’s important to the company that they be informed, and the ability to deny apps the ability to track users across other apps through its App Tracking Transparency.

That Android could come up with privacy labels of its own is still very much a possibility down the road. The anti-tracking tech that Apple has developed represents a major step toward privacy that Google is apparently considering but which would also put a dent in its business model, which uses data collected from users across its many trackers on websites, services, and apps to sell targeted ads. Apple doesn’t have the same business model, so it can take the lead without worrying about its bottom line. And it almost always does.

It’s important to keep in mind that Android is a much more popular mobile operating system, globally, than iOS. It powers the majority of the world’s smartphones, including very cheap models for people who could never in their wildest dreams afford an iPhone. So choosing an operating system based on its privacy features is not an option for many people. Assuming Android 12 is available on their devices, that means more people will finally have access to measures of privacy that they didn’t have before. They just had to wait for Apple to do them first.

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