Privacy-focused search site DuckDuckGo has added another way to prevent more data from getting to advertisers, opening up tracking protection for Android apps to beta testers.
DuckDuckGo positions App Tracking Protection as something similar to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency for iOS devices, but “even more powerful.” Enabling DuckDuckGo in the Android app (under “More DuckDuckGo”) installs a local VPN service on your phone, which can then automatically start blocking trackers on DDG’s public block list. DuckDuckGo says it does this “without sending app data to DuckDuckGo or other remote servers.”
Google recently gave Android users some native tools to prevent warrantless tracking, including per-app location tracking approval and limited opt-out of native ad tracking. Apple’s App Tracking Transparency asks if users want to block apps from accessing the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), but apps can still use the larger tracking networks across many apps to improve the app’s user profile.
Alison Goodman, DuckDuckGo’s senior communications manager, told Ars Technica that App Tracking Protection requires Android VPN permission to monitor network traffic. When it recognizes a tracker from the blocklist, it “searches the destination domain for outbound requests and blocks them if they’re on our blocklist and the requested app doesn’t belong to the same company that owns the domain.”
Goodman added that “much of the data collected by trackers is not controlled [Android] permissions,” making app tracking protection an optional extra.
App tracking protection was introduced a year ago in a limited beta version. Since then, DuckDuckGo has updated the app to show more information about the types of data trackers are trying to collect, such as your exact location, age, and your phone’s digital fingerprint. In testing, DuckDuckGo found that an Android phone with 35 apps can see 1,000-2,000 tracking attempts per day, sending data to more than 70 companies.
WIRED’s Matt Burgess tested the app when it launched, installing 36 apps on the new Pixel 6 Pro and logging into about half of them:
These included the McDonald’s app, LinkedIn, Facebook, Amazon and BBC Sounds. … I left the phone alone for four days and didn’t use it at all. Within 96 hours, 23 of these apps had made more than 630 tracking attempts in the background.
When I opened the McDonald’s app, trackers from Adobe, cloud software firm New Relic, Google, emotion tracking company Apptentive, and mobile analytics company Kochava were trying to collect data about me. To activate Google’s trackers, it was enough to open the eBay and Uber apps, but not log into them.
DuckDuckGo notes that some apps still have tracking protection turned off because they require tracking to function properly, especially browsers and apps that have in-app browsers. When I installed DuckDuckGo protection on my Android phone early last year, I had problems renting scooters and e-bikes from Lime and accessing my apartment building’s door unlock service. Also in this beta, DuckDuckGo is likely looking for such reviews.