Several months ago, Apple introduced a new feature to iOS - App Tracking Transparency. This feature allows users the opportunity to tell apps that track user data on their phones to bug off. It limits the amount of data available to those apps from things that happen off of the platform. Android, while being the more customizable platform, is missing this feature - until now. DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused browser and search engine, is taking the lead to introduce the feature themselves.
What is App Tracking Transparency?
The feature was a controversial one when Apple introduced it for iOS 15. Apple pitched the feature as a way to protect the privacy of iPhone and iPad users by offering data sandboxing. The feature works similarly to how camera, microphone, and photo privacy works. When external data is attempted to be accessed, iOS will ask you if you want to allow the app access to that data. If you ask the app not to track you, then Apple will prevent access to that data on your device.
The data in question is app usage from other apps, browser history, and more. This can be done through previously public platform data as well as third-party trackers built into the apps themselves. Platforms use this data in order to customize ads for you. This is the reason why Facebook fought the feature, both in public and in private. They ran a whole campaign against the feature on their own platform, trying to raise fears in business owners that everything was going to collapse because of App Tracking Transparency. In the end, the feature didn't create an apocalypse, and instead, revenue grew.
What is DuckDuckGo doing?
The reality is users have the ability to decide who does and does not have access to their private data. That personal choice is what the future of tech should look like, and some companies, like DuckDuckGo, are leaning into it. DuckDuckGo has always been a privacy-focused organization. Their browser and search engine are specifically designed to provide additional privacy to their users. Now they are bringing a new feature, App Tracking Protection for Android, to the mobile platform.
The new feature, announced this week and launched into beta, is intended to mimic the feature from Apple. DuckDuckGo describes the problem they are attempting to fix saying,
Across all your apps, your personal data is being sent to dozens of third-party companies, thousands of times per week. This data enables tracking networks like Facebook and Google to create even more detailed digital profiles on you. With those profiles, tracking networks can manipulate what you see online, target you with ads based on your behavior, and even sell your data to other companies like data brokers, advertisers, and governments.
The company has built a database of third-party tracking systems and compares traffic leaving your device against that database. If it detects an attempt to send tracking data to companies like Google and Facebook, it will block the data from leaving your device. Within the system you can then see every request that blocked and what app it was sent from.
Technologically, the feature was implemented in a clever way. It registers itself as a virtual private network (VPN) on your device, allowing all traffic to get pushed through the system. With that, the system is able to monitor all outgoing traffic in order to filter what is leaving the device. This is done entirely locally, so your history is never transmitted to external servers - maintaining both speed and privacy.
The feature is built into the DuckDuckGo Android app, so you don't need anything additional. If you want to join the beta waitlist, you can go to your app settings and select App Tracking Protection in the Privacy section.