Revelations have emerged from reported sources that Google is spying on how people interact with rival Android apps. The report mentions how Google is monitoring users interactions with non-Google apps via an internal program and utilizing the data to improve its own products.

According to a startling report in The Information, a program called Android Lockbox gives Google access to data on how Android users interact with other, non-Google apps such as TikTok, Facebook and Instagram.

Google-owned YouTube is working on a TikTok rival called Shorts, to be introduced by the end of this year. The report claims that, in India earlier this month, when YouTube was implementing the rollout of Shorts they used Android Lockbox to reveal a valuable source of market research on how people in India were using TikTok to help develop the product before launch. 

Android Lockbox works via Google Mobile Services (GMS). It is activated when users agree to share information as part of the set-up process. Users are told that this data allows Google to offer a more personalized experience. The data captured also helps Google advance its own apps, many of which are in direct competition with non-Google products. Employees at Google can view this sensitive data about other apps, including such data as how often they are activated and for how long they are used. 

According to the report in The Information, Google has admitted that it has access to usage data from rival apps which could be used in competitive research.

A Google spokesperson said in a statement: “Since 2014, the Android App Usage Data API has been used by Google and Android developers who have been authorized by Android OEMs or users to access basic data about app usage – such as how often apps are opened – to analyze and improve services. The API doesn’t obtain any information about in-app activity and our collection of this data is disclosed to and controllable by users.”

Google is not the only tech company to be accused of such data harvesting practices. The Wall Street Journal, in 2017, alleged that Facebook used a VPN service called Onavo to monitor rival services. Onavo Protect was supposed to be purely a piece of VPN functionality software developed by Facebook but was allegedly used primarily to gather information about what other apps Facebook users were using on their mobile devices.

The Onavo app was shut down in 2019 around the same time that the US government announced an anti-trust investigation into the malpractice of tech giants.

Both the US and EU governments have announced pending investigations into Google, along with other tech giants, over dominance in their fields and anti-market practices.

Android Lockbox tracks how users interact with their smartphones from the moment they opt in during setup. Google says the type of data it collects when usage and diagnostics is turned on is merely information like: battery level, how often an app is used and quality and length of network connections.

Google has subsequently responded to The Information‘s revelations and admitted that it does have access to usage data from competing apps. However, it has justified this by saying that the program is public and that other developers also have access to the data should they wish. For those concerned about sharing their smartphone and app usage with Google, Usage and Diagnostics can be switched off in the settings menu on an Android device.

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