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Privacy x Android: What’s new in Android 12?

Mobile App Development
Technology, Information and Media
Under the hood of the gorgeous new Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, Android 12 doubles as a strong surprise contender in the privacy arena.

It doesn’t matter if you are an everyday user or an out-and-out tech expert, fears around privacy violations can keep anyone up at night.

For long, detractors have been crying foul about Google’s Android, alleging that the data giant is the biggest winner from it all. And they’re not entirely off the mark either, considering that almost 75% of all smartphones on Earth (except the ones in China) run on the Android Operating System and connect to Google Play. 

Google Ads have better targeting with location history. Google products like Google Pay can observe your behavior up close. And no matter how comprehensive a permission manager and ad settings users have had all this while, chances are notions of privacy are going for a toss. 

But if the Android 12 Beta (the most downloaded beta in Google’s history) is anything to go by, things are a-moving, with Google swooping in on some blazing hot privacy action. 

The final release of Android 12 may well be Google’s biggest stride towards privacy. If the recent launch of the latest lineup of Pixel phones (the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro) is anything to go by, a renewed approach to privacy is baked into the new Android. 

So what exactly are they doing to play better defense? A slew of features dedicated to privacy rush to answer that question. 

Android Private Compute Core

Following Apple’s path breaking announcement on app tracking transparency, Android 12 responds with the mysteriously named Android Private Compute Core (APCC).

Despite how it sounds, it’s actually quite a simple mechanism. The APCC is a walled-off portion of your OS that will house your device’s machine learning functions. 

These functions are not allowed any network access; Google’s open-source APIs are the only way it communicates. This fences the data within the APCC’s sandbox and never lets it reach the cloud. 

Proactive Privacy Dashboard 

Now armed with more insights and toggles, Android will alert you if an app’s using your camera or mic with status bar icons. This will be followed by a prompt asking if you want to shut access off. These activity controls will apply to Google services and apps too — setting a firm direction for future Android updates to take. 

So whenever an app is accessing your phone’s camera or microphone — even if only in the background — Android 12 will place an indicator in the upper-right corner of your screen to alert you.

Improved Transparency

Android will even tell you what’s being accessed and which app is responsible. The secret is in the swipe down and in the notification shade.

Any time you see a green dot in the corner of your screen, swipe down once from the top of the display. The dot will expand into the full icon and you can then tap to see what exactly is afoot — across Google and third party apps alike. 

Fast toggle sensor switches

Material You will also feature a series of toggles that will let you turn your phone’s camera, microphone, or GPS sensor completely off with a single fast tap. Android’s Quick Settings panel will host these toggles. 

The Amplification Effect

With these privacy features all set to be a part of Google’s kitty, Android will reap the benefits of Google’s farsighted shift to a battle on the privacy frontier. 

These OS upgrades only amplify Google’s multilayer approach to enhanced privacy — which also includes initiatives underway to fight privacy abuse when using apps downloaded from the Play Store. Some of these include moves like: 

  1. Platform Updates: Every year, Google pushes new updates to the platform APIs to ensure that the APIs are used properly and do not have privacy loopholes.

  2. Google Play Policy: When an app is uploaded to the Play Store, it is mandatory for it to adhere to the policies Google Play defines. They enforce key rules that increase privacy such as banning apps from being used for gambling, illegal activities, and malicious behavior. Read more about it here.

  3. Anti-Abuse Classifiers: Google uses Machine Learning (ML) to monitor apps in their early stages and check if they abuse user privacy in any way. These models are trained to spot any malware on a network, guide incident responses, and detect intrusions before they start.

  4. Human Reviewers @ Google: Although ML algorithms rush to catch security issues every day, they are accompanied by a dedicated team at Google that evaluates and identifies root causes, and helps mitigate vulnerabilities.

  5. Vulnerability Reward Programs: To top it all, Google invests a lot in comprehensive security and vulnerability programs to work with people all around the globe. In 2021 alone, they shelled out over three million dollars in payments to testers around the world. 

All this brings us to the final question.

What can you do as a dev?

As developers, the question we need to ask ourselves is ‘Do we really need it?’. After all, most of the data we collect is for analytics but ends up getting abandoned later on. 

For instance,

  • IMEI Number: Unique identifier for every user
  • Installed App: A list of the user’s installed apps
  • User Location: The user’s location when they opened the app
  • Network Information: The name, strength, and type of network the user’s using, like Wi-Fi

What we see above are details that are private to every user. So, when we’re looking to build alternatives, we could start with switches as simple as

  • Replacing IMEI & hardware identifiers with the Instance ID and Google Ad ID
  • Replacing the Read SMS permission with the Play SMS Retriever API
  • Replacing Fine Location with Coarse Location (for approximate location)
  • Replacing the READ_PHONE_STATE permission with Audio Focus as an in-call signal

Google has also made provisions for other APIs like the Block Store API which lets developers skip the hassle of recording private user credentials and stick with a unique user token — massively boosting privacy across Android. 

All said and done, Android 12 is a massive step in the right direction for Google. Be it aesthetics, device usage, and, chiefly, privacy — Android 12 delivers in every corner.

And with the update rolling out across devices from other OEMs, the creative possibilities the OS could open up will be the thing to watch.

When taken together, this could spell a reinvention of how your app approaches User Privacy and UX Design on Android. As experts in developing for Android, Mutual Mobile has launched apps on the OS for firms like The Economist, Under Armour, AccuWeather and Builders FirstSource, a Fortune 500 company.

Our developers can help you explore Android 12’s underlying potential and upgrade your app in a way that capitalizes on Material You. 

Build the Android app of your dreams.

Nikhil Bansal

Nikhil Bansal worked at Mutual Mobile as an Android Engineer.

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