Android hasn’t always had an excellent data protection record, but many necessary improvements have been made over time. Android 10 has revised the permissions to give users more control and restrict background access to apps. Now Android 11 takes things to the next level by automatically revoking unused app permissions, introducing scoped storage, and more.
While these changes are more than welcome, they are missing some features that could further improve privacy on Android. Google doesn’t have to look far for examples either. Android OEMs have already closed some loopholes, and Google’s main competitor, Apple, is also redoubling its privacy efforts.
Deep dive: Read our Android 11 review
Android 11 privacy changes
Not much seems to have changed on the interface of Android 11. Under the hood, however, Google has stepped up its privacy efforts significantly. The main focus is again on permissions.
Users get more granular controls and can now grant one-time permissions for location, camera and microphone access. This is an important upgrade to the “While In Use” permission because it allows you to test apps and features with confidence. In the case of rarely used apps, their confidential permissions are revoked after a while.
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The most important change, however, concerns access to the background location. Developers now need to explain why their app needs it in the first place, while users need to select Always Allow if they want to allow access to the background location.
All of these changes are necessary and are sure to be well received. Still, few apps will ever try to sniff you through your camera or microphone. Most are much more interested in your activities inside and outside of their application. This is where the scope memory comes into play. In theory, apps are placed in their own little sandbox so that they cannot interact directly with other installed applications. But is that enough?
Privacy features Android needs to borrow
While the current privacy features for Android 11 offer good protection, there are some notable loopholes.
Scope of storage should technically prevent apps from accessing information they don’t need, but it would be great to have a resiliency similar to Oppos Color OS already. Protecting personal information prevents data leakage by replacing sensitive information with blank data when malicious apps attempt to capture it. This includes call logs, contacts, messages and events. You may be wondering why this is necessary and the answer is simple. No data protection function is perfect. Vulnerabilities are common, and a second obstacle to overcoming malicious apps is making your device more secure.
Speaking of vulnerabilities, there’s one that’s been ignored for quite some time: your clipboard. Until recently, apps could easily access text that you copied onto Android and iOS without permission. Apple hasn’t fully resolved the problem yet, but it has introduced notifications to warn you when applications access your clipboard in iOS 14. Google can easily perfect this feature by turning it into a permission. Why is that important? Because we often copy PINs and passwords to our clipboard, especially when we use a password manager. Preventing access to the clipboard would therefore make phones more secure.
Another privacy feature that Android 11 has to borrow from iOS 14 is signing up with Apple. The Cupertino company is now requiring iOS developers to include this option every time they sign up with third-party providers. So what does it do?
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Registering with Apple is both a data protection function and a convenience function. You can sign in to your account without filling out long, boring forms, but it also protects your information. Apps and websites can only request your name and email address to create an account. Signing in to Google is very similar, but with one big difference. On an iPhone, you don’t have to provide your email address either. Instead, you can use Apple’s private email relay service. It creates and shares a unique, random email address which then forwards messages to your personal email. Something similar would be an invaluable addition to Android 11’s privacy arsenal.
Restriction of data collection by third parties
Facebook is the most notorious third party that your sensitive data can end up with. Even if you have not installed the app or have never used any of its services, Facebook offers tools that developers can use to forward the data collected in their apps to the social network. After several investigations, this could include very sensitive information like health data from fitness and period tracking apps. Such data leaks occur on both iOS and Android. If you still have a Facebook account, all you have to do is go to your off-Facebook activity page to see for yourself. Thousands of popular applications share your in-app activity with the social media giant.
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Is there anything Google can do about it? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer here. Apple believed it had a solution, but has already received a significant setback. Cupertino company wants to regulate data collection by requiring user permission to track third-party apps and websites.
Users would get a pop-up asking them to “Allow tracking” or “Ask app not to track”. However, even this relatively mild approach sparked Facebook. The social media giant complained that “iOS 14 will hurt many of our developers and publishers in an already difficult time for businesses.” This is because targeted advertising is often based on cross-app tracking. Even so, Apple plans to fully implement the feature next year. Some apps may still try to track users, but the company claims that their access to a device’s advertising identifier would be restricted.
Limiting cross-tracking is a risky move for Google.
Would this approach make sense for Google? Can Android 11 introduce similar tracking permissions? We don’t think this is out of the question, but it will be a very risky move tied to disgruntled advertisers. Still, it’s one of the core issues Android has to deal with if it is to improve its privacy game.
What do you think of the privacy features of Android 11? What would you like to see included? Let us know in the comments.