Rumors of Google developing an anti-tracking feature for Android appear to have been well-founded. The Financial Times has learned that Google is notifying developers of new protections for Android users who opt out of sharing the device-specific Advertising ID that lets companies track users across apps. If developers try to access the ID of someone who declined tracking, they'll get a "string of zeros" rather than useful info.
You can already curb ad tracking and reset your Advertising ID, but developers have had ways to work around these restrictions.
The new approach is slated to arrive later this year, Google said in the email. We've asked Google if it can elaborate on the move, including whether or not it's tied to Android 12.
The new safeguards would effectively serve as a counter to Apple's stricter app tracking privacy introduced in iOS 14.5. Critics have accused Google of being reluctant to improve privacy controls in the past, to the point where it allegedly hid settings to discourage people from using them. That focus has changed over the years, to the point where Android 12 will include multiple conspicuous privacy controls, but efforts like this anti-tracking measure could further aid Google's reputation.
This could be helpful if you want to use Android but want improved privacy. However, it's not just advertisers that won't be thrilled. Security expert Jackie Singh told the FT that there's a concern that Google (and Apple) will have disproportionately more power over your data. You may have more privacy overall, but the move could amount to more of a calculated tradeoff than an absolute win for users.
Update 6/3 11:25AM ET: Engadget understands that the new protections will be phased in, starting with Android 12 devices in late 2021 and reaching all Google Play Store-capable devices in early 2022. Google also had this change in the pipeline for a while, although the timing is certainly convenient given Apple's latest moves.