In late April, Apple’s introduction of App Tracking Transparency tools shook the ad industry to its core. iPhone and iPad owners can now prevent apps from tracking their behavior and use their data for personalized advertising. Since the new privacy controls were launched, nearly $10 billion has been wiped out of 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, called “App Tracking Protection for Android”, is rolling out in beta starting today and aims to mimic Apple’s iOS controls. “The idea is that we prevent this data collection from happening from the apps that don’t own the trackers,” said Peter Dolanjski, product director at DuckDuckGo. “You should see a lot less scary ads tracking you online.”
The vast majority of apps have third-party trackers tucked into their code. These trackers track your behavior across apps and help create profiles about you that may include what you buy, demographics, and other information that can be used to show you personalized ads. DuckDuckGo says analysis of popular free Android apps shows that more than 96 percent of them contain trackers. Blocking these trackers prevents Facebook and Google, the trackers of which are the most prominent, from sending data back to the mothership, nor do the dozens of ad networks you’ve never heard of.
From a user perspective, blocking trackers with DuckDuckGo’s tool is easy. App Tracking Protection appears as an option in the Android app settings menu. For now you will see the option to get on a waiting list to gain access. But once enabled, the feature shows the total number of trackers that have been blocked in the past week and lists what has been recently blocked in each app. Open the app from the Daily Mail, one of the world’s largest news websites, and DuckDuckGo will immediately register that it is blocking trackers from Google, Amazon, WarnerMedia, Adobe and advertising company Taboola. A DuckDuckGo sample showed that more than 60 apps tracked a test phone thousands of times in the past seven days.
My own experience has proven that. Using a new Google Pixel 6 Pro, I installed 36 popular free apps — by some estimates, people install about 40 apps on their phones — and logged into about half of them. These include the McDonald’s app, LinkedIn, Facebook, Amazon and BBC Sounds. When I previewed DuckDuckGo’s Android tracker blocker, 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 background tracking attempts.
If you use your phone on a daily basis — opening and using apps — you’ll see a lot more tracking attempts. When I opened the McDonald’s app, trackers from Adobe, cloud software company New Relic, Google, emotion-tracking company Apptentive, and mobile analytics company Kochava tried to collect data about me. Opening the eBay and Uber apps, but not logging in, was enough to activate Google trackers.