Enlarge / Gabriel Weinberg, creator of DuckDuckGo.
Washington Post | Getty Images
At the end of April, Apple’s introduction of app tracking transparency tools rocked the advertising industry to the core. iPhone and iPad owners could now prevent apps from tracking their behavior and using their data for personalized advertising. Nearly $ 10 billion has been wiped from Snap, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube revenue from Meta Platform since the new privacy controls were in place.
Now a similar tool is coming to Google’s Android operating system – albeit not from Google itself. Privacy-focused technology company DuckDuckGo, which started out as a private search engine, is adding the ability to block hidden trackers to its Android app. The function called “App Tracking Protection for Android” will be introduced from today in the beta phase and is intended to mimic Apple’s iOS controls. “The idea is that we prevent this data collection from taking place from apps that do not belong to the trackers,” says Peter Dolanjski, Director of Product at DuckDuckGo. “You should see a lot less scary ads following you online.”
The vast majority of apps have third-party trackers hidden in their code. These trackers monitor your behavior in various apps and help create profiles about you, which may contain your purchases, demographics, and other information that can be used to serve you personalized ads. DuckDuckGo says its analysis of popular free Android apps shows that over 96 percent of them contain trackers. Blocking these trackers means Facebook and Google, whose trackers are among the most popular, can’t send data back to the mothership – neither can the dozen of ad networks you’ve never heard of.
From the user’s point of view, blocking trackers with DuckDuckGo’s tool is easy. App tracking protection is shown as an option in the settings menu of its Android app. Right now you will see the option to put yourself on a waiting list to access it. But once enabled, the feature will show the total number of trackers blocked in the past week and give a breakdown of the apps recently blocked in each app. Open the app of the Daily Mail, one of the world’s largest news websites, and DuckDuckGo immediately registers that it is blocking trackers from Google, Amazon, WarnerMedia, Adobe and the advertising company Taboola. An example from DuckDuckGo showed that more than 60 apps tracked a test phone thousands of times in the past seven days.
My own experience has confirmed that. With a brand new Google Pixel 6 Pro, I installed 36 popular free apps – some estimates say people install around 40 apps on their phones – and logged into about half of them. This included the McDonald’s app, LinkedIn, Facebook, Amazon and BBC Sounds. Then, with a preview of DuckDuckGo’s Android tracker block, 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 tracking attempts in the background.
Using your phone on a daily basis – opening and interacting with apps – results in much more attempted chase 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 were trying to collect data about me. Opening the eBay and Uber apps – but not signing in – was enough to trigger Google trackers.