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Google announces new privacy features for Android phones — but stops short of limiting ad tracking

The changes don’t go as far as Apple did when it began requiring apps to ask permission to track you

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during the keynote address at the annual Google I/O developers conference, held virtually at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (Ed Ritger/Google/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Mobile phone apps constantly hoover up data about their users. At Google’s annual developer conference on Tuesday, the company announced a few new features that let people with phones running its Android operating system limit that harvesting.

But the changes stopped short of forcing apps to specifically ask permission to use people’s data to advertise to them across the Web, a policy Apple instituted on its iPhones in February.

Instead, Android will have a “privacy dashboard” that allows people to control exactly which apps have access to their location, camera and microphone. An indicator will also light up whenever an app is listening or recording video. If users want to stop apps from using their data for advertising purposes, they have to go into settings and disable ad tracking completely from the phone.

The situation shows how important privacy is for the biggest tech companies in convincing customers to use their products — and how deeply ingrained advertising is in Google’s business. Ad IDs have been widely used for years, and though privacy advocates have long urged people to turn them off on their phones, doing so has generally required digging through multiple levels of settings.

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Apple also provides the ad IDs of its users to app owners, but its decision to require apps to ask for permission sent shock waves through the industry because of fears most users would choose to block tracking. Facebook, which uses ad IDs heavily to build advertising profiles on people across different devices and apps, has protested loudly and started sending its own notifications to people explaining that targeted advertising helps make for better ads and supports small businesses. Apple does sell its own targeted ads in its app store.

Google’s executives have acknowledged that tracking makes people uneasy, but the company has also stressed the importance of advertising based on people’s online behavior. While Apple’s pitch to consumers has partly been for them to pay premium prices for a phone that blocks tracking, Google’s perspective is that advertising on apps and on websites helps keep prices low.

“We’ve designed security and privacy for everyone, no matter how expensive their device is,” Suzanne Frey, a Google engineering vice president, said during a virtual presentation kicking off the developer conference.

Here’s what else you need to know from Google’s Tuesday announcements

  • Google is doubling down on new artificial intelligence technologies that can converse with people and answer questions on an essentially infinite number of topics. One new system can impersonate an object or topic and let anyone ask questions about that object directly to it. In one example, Google showed a conversation between a person and Pluto, in which the dwarf planet answered complex questions about itself and pushed the conversation in new directions on its own.
  • Another new AI model can answer questions like “What are the best shoes for hiking Mt. Fuji?” The AI models use some of the same technology that Google ethics researchers raised questions about last year for its potential to carry bias. The company later fired one of the researchers, Timnit Gebru, for raising questions about whether Google can police its own technology. Making the same tech such a big part of the presentation was “surprising and brazen,” said Emily Bender, a researcher at the University of Washington who co-wrote the paper with Gebru.
  • Google also said Samsung would drop its own operating system for smartwatches and work to adopt Google’s WearOS instead. WearOS will also be incorporated into new devices from Fitbit, which Google bought in 2019.
  • The company is continuing its slow and steady efforts to get into health care. It showed off an AI tool with which people can use their phone camera to identify one of nearly 300 skin diseases simply by snapping a photo. It will be available only in the European Union for now.