New Android 12 privacy features don't mean Google actually care about your privacy

Google is introducing new privacy features in Android 12, but that shouldn't distract us from the fact that its core business model, behavioural ads, still heavily relies on collecting our personal data.

Key points
  • Upcoming privacy features in Android 12 are a welcome improvement but should not distract us from how Google still profits from our data
  • Google business model remains advertising and relies on collection and sharing of personal data
  • The tech giant still enables and supports an adtech industry that profit on collecting and sharing our data
News & Analysis

On May 18th 2021 Google held its annual developer conference, Google I/O, where the company announces a number of innovations, products and software updates that will hit the market in the months to come. Among these announcements, the company introduced Android 12, its latest mobile Operating System (OS), that came with headline grabbing privacy features.
Possibly trying to catch up with Apple, which is positioning itself as a privacy-friendly tech company and gave the adtech industry a kick in the teeth with its own recent operating system updates giving users the option to object to cross-app tracking, Google is making a number of changes to its OS to give more control to the users and improve security and privacy. These new features revolve around the camera, microphone and location and include:

  • A dashboard that allow users to see which apps are using the microphone, camera and accessing location
  • An indicator that lights up in the upper right screen when the camera or microphone are being used
  • An option for sharing approximate location rather than precise location
  • Shortcuts to disable access to the microphone or camera for the entire system (any apps)
  • A "private compute core" where machine learning fuctions will be run to ensure that access to this information is restricted to authorised services (for example when you use the assistant and it processes your voice, the data will be stored locally on the device, although how it technically works and whether data is still shared with Google is unclear).
Android 12 Microphone and camera indicators and toggles - Image created and shared by the Android Open Source Project and used according to terms described in the Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution License

While all these features are welcome additions and consumers will appreciate being given more control over how software accesses the physical sensors of their device, this should not be mistaken for an embrace of privacy by the tech giant.
Google's business model remains advertising, and more specifically behavioural advertising. And you know what's at the core of this business model? Exploiting people's data. For years, PI has been exposing for years AdTech industry gratuitously collects our data, and not just to target us with better ads.
What does that have to do with Android? Well, by directing the attention to its consumer facing products such as Android, Google is trying to distract us from its real activity: the collection and processing of massive amount of personal data. We might be fooled because this part of Google's operations is much less visible and not always well understood, so let's try to clear it up in a few words.
Sometimes it's hard to shake the feeling your phone is monitoring you in order to target you with ads, especially after seeing adverts online for products you might have only chatted about with friends. How else could companies know if they're not eavesdropping on conversations? What's at work here is actually a complex ecosystem dedicated to collecting data about us, from the web pages we visit, to the apps we use, to the people we engage with online. Small pieces of data combined together aim to build up a picture of you as a person, and what you might eventually want to buy, even if you don't know it yet.
Doing this requires two things: being able to track what you do (the sites you visits, your apps etc...) and consolidating this data to profile you. With these two things, a company is (theoretically, adtech efficient is actually quite questionable) capable of precisely targeting you with ads (for example to influence how you vote, as Cambridge Analytica claimed back in 2018) or to make use of your data for other purposes (for example sharing your location with the police).

While there are hundreds of AdTech companies in the ecosystem that specialise in one or two aspects of collecting, profiling and targeting, Google is still king of it all. With trackers on more than 90% of the web and through its own services such as Youtube and Gmail, the company is able to build extremely detailed profiles of anyone's online activity. Even Android itself is constantly sharing data with Google at the OS level! Google's presence on the web is so unavoidable today that cutting it out entirely is extremely difficult. With this dominant position, Google acts as the number one facilitator for behavioural advertising, enabling personal data to flow through technologies such as Real Time Bidding and consolidating its own datasets.
Google is also trying to improve its image on this front, with a will to ditch third party cookies (one of the main tools for online tracking) unfortunately quickly followed by an initiative to replace it with something even more invasive. Along with the new privacy features, these are nice but misleading attempts to prove that they care for your privacy. But we should not be fooled by the privacy-friendly crumbs Google throws from its table. This is far from being sufficient, and doesn't tackle the systemic data exploitation that the company supports and enables. If Google wants to show that it cares for our privacy, it's going to require more than a few toggles.
If you want to help us end this data exploitation industry, support us by donating or subscribing to our news feeds. And if you want to limit online tracking, check our guides!