25. November 2020

For the development of competing Apps: Google spies on Android users

An internal program provides Google employees with information about which non-Google apps users interact most with. The company uses the data to bring app rivals to market.

According to a report by online portal The Information, Google is actively spying on Android users. A program called “Android Lockbox” enables employees of the search engine company to query sensitive data about the app usage of non-Google apps of individual users. Among other things, Google has insight into how often an app is opened and how long it is used.

According to The Information, Google uses the data to develop rivals for apps like Facebook and Instagram and to improve its own service. For example, Google is said to have reviewed rival apps for Google’s GMail app.

  • The program “Android Lockbox” is also said to have been used in the development of the TikTok clone “Shorts”.
  • The report goes on to say that Google employees had to obtain the consent of superiors before retrieving data.
  • In some cases, they also refused access. Users agree to the data query during setup of the Android device

The Information reports that Google gets most of the sensitive data from users if they agree to share data with Google in the setup process of their Android device. The search engine company only states that users receive a personalized service by sharing information. In reality, however, this data is also used to develop competing apps, according to The Information.
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Google explains: Users remain anonymous

Google responded to the report and admitted to having access to information from non-Google apps. However, this access was not exclusive. Other app developers can also access the data, according to Google. Nevertheless, it is assumed that the “Android Lockbox” program provides the search engine company with more far-reaching insights than it appears. This is because the Google apps are already pre-installed on most Android smartphones. Other developers can only retrieve data if the user has previously actively set it up on the device. Contrary to Google’s assertion, the information is therefore not simply visible to all app developers. In a statement, the company affirmed that the user data is anonymized. A behavioral pattern of individual users can therefore not be traced.

A spokesman of the tech company explained in a mail to the news portal The Verge. Since 2014, the Android App Usage Data API has been used by Google and Android developers who have been authorized by Android OEMs or users to access basic data about app usage-such as how often apps are opened-to analyze and improve services. The API doesn’t obtain any information about in-app activity and our collection of this data is disclosed to and controllable by users.

It is still unclear whether Google really uses the data only for the development of competing apps. It is also not yet clear whether The Information’s report will have more far-reaching consequences for the search engine giant.