DuckDuckGo released a new privacy tool for Android Wednesday that will help protect you from the companies harvesting personal data through your apps. The new App Tracking Protection feature, now available in beta in the DuckDuckGo for Android app, will let users take advantage of some of the privacy protections already enjoyed by iPhone users.
The company’s App Tracking Protection tool doesn’t just block the data collection, it also gives you a firsthand look at what information apps are trying to harvest and where they’re trying to send it. DuckDuckGo spent the last year testing the feature with real users. The feature is easy to use. All you have to do is install the DuckDuckGo app, open Settings, select “App Tracking Protection,” and follow the onscreen instructions.
According to Peter Dolanjski, director of product at DuckDuckGo, people had no idea how bad the data collection really was. “People were absolutely baffled, not just at the number of requests apps are making but also the kind of data involved” he said.
Data and advertising businesses like Meta, Google, and countless others make money by tracking your behavior across apps and websites owned by other companies. App developers share your data with third parties by sending it directly from your phone to corporate servers, using snippets of code called trackers. The App Tracking Protection tool spots when an app is trying to send information to a third party tracker and blocks most of those transmissions.
App Tracking Protection runs in the background of your day-to-day phone use, but if you open it up, the DuckDuckGo app gives you a real time summary of the attempts to collect your data. The numbers will be staggering if you aren’t familiar with the inner workings of tech products.
According to DuckDuckGo, the average Android user has about 35 apps on their phone. In their tests, a phone with 35 apps on it will send about 1,000-2,000 packets of tracking data to over 70 different tracking companies every day—but that number can be far worse depending on which apps you use.
Along with details about your behavior, that data also includes personally identifiable information including your location, email address, phone number, ID numbers, data used for device fingerprinting, and more.
Users who tested out the feature were alarmed. “People told us the most shocking thing was when they woke up in the morning to pick up the phone and saw all the tracking that happened overnight while they were asleep,” Dolanjski said. “It just makes it all the more creepy when you realize it’s happening in the background.”
Apple introduced a similarly named privacy setting last year called App Tracking Transparency. The setting, which caused an earthquake in the tech industry (Meta said the setting cost it $10 billion in a year), gave iPhone users some of best, easy-to-use privacy protection available to date. But Android doesn’t offer anything similar built-in to the operating system. There are a number of other tracker protection tools Android users can install, but DuckDuckGo’s offering is free and built by a company with a history of protecting users’ privacy.
In fact, DuckDuckGo’s privacy tool is even more powerful than Apple’s offering in some ways. Apple’s App Tracking Transparency takes a policy-based approach, telling apps they’re not allows to track users and making it impossible to collect an ID number used for adverting. DuckDuckGo’s tool applies more broadly; rather than protecting certain data points, it blocks communication with many third parties altogether, no matter what kind of data is involved.
“We feel that its necessary to block the requests of these trackers outright to stop that data being collected,” Dolanjski said. The company chose to bring the feature to Android first because users don’t have any meaningful built-in protection. “Apart from Google introducing additional controls in the future, you’re not going to be able the data collection any other way,” he said. DuckDuckGo is considering adding the feature to its iPhone app in the future.