Google Privacy Sandbox coming to Android: a ‘less blunt’ approach than Apple?

Android’s two year transition away from cross-app tracking is in stark contrast to Apple’s forced walled-garden approach. Can advertisers breathe a sigh of relief?

Google has launched a new initiative that will put an end to cross-app tracking on Android over the next two years.

Users on Android phones will be harder to track across apps as the mobile operating system follows Apple’s lead on mobile ad privacy.

An entirely different ad tracking system in two year’s time

Currently, Android devices are each assigned a unique identifier known as an “advertising ID,” which is used to build a profile of an Android user that developers can use to target in-app ads. 

Under the new changes, advertising ID will be phased out and replaced by alternative targeting mechanisms that Google claims will be more favourable to user privacy.

Anthony Chavez, VP from product management on the Android Security and Privacy team, explained in a blog post that “these solutions will limit sharing of user data with third parties and operate without cross-app identifiers, including advertising ID. We’re also exploring technologies that reduce the potential for covert data collection, including safer ways for apps to integrate with advertising SDKs.”

This move follows the introduction of privacy measures around the advertising ID last year that allow users to opt out of tracking and have their unique identifier removed from the system and overwritten with zeroes. 

By contrast, the latest steps signal that in the coming years, developers will have to use an entirely different system to tap into data about user preferences.

Apple versus Google: a different approach to mobile privacy

Apple’s App Tracking Transparency, introduced last year with iOS 14.5, forced apps to ask users for permission to track activity across other companies’ apps and websites, with a dialogue box prompting users to either “Allow” or “Ask App Not to Track.” 

At the same time, Apple introduced its own ad-targeting system, which had a huge impact on revenue one rival platforms at Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, which relied on iOS users as a big chunk of their audiences. 

Unlike Apple, Google has been framing its changes as more of a balancing act by retaining many of the good aspects of mobile ads while removing some of the key privacy issues. 

Chavez argued that overly broad ad blocking actually leads to worse privacy outcomes because it prompts advertisers to turn to potentially even more invasive forms of tracking such as browser fingerprinting (where websites collect information about browser type and version, operating system, plugins, time zone, language, screen resolution to identify users instead of cookies).

“We realise that other platforms have taken a different approach to ad privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers,” Chavez added. ”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.” 

Google will release developer previews of the Android proposals over the course of 2022 with a beta release scheduled by the end of the year.

“A massive engineering challenge”

Julien Hirth, Co-founder and GM, Scibids says: “With mobile playing such an important role in the digital marketing landscape, Google’s announcement that its Privacy Sandbox is now being applied to Android is an important update for advertisers. With its Privacy Sandbox, Google is seeking to satiate the demands of privacy-conscious consumers and simultaneously balance the requirements of regulators with the financial needs of advertisers. 

“A massive engineering challenge given the numerous use cases attached to cookies and shared user IDs across the industry but also a significant step toward a privacy-friendly future for the industry! Still, a lot of open questions to be solved but we can appreciate Chrome’s willingness to collaborate with the industry in order to find the best trade-off between user privacy and marketing performance."