Google has informed developers that it’s about to enforce new restrictions on Android apps that unnecessarily track user location data in the background. It informed developers that all apps in the Google Play store will need to have express approval from the company to collect such data or risk being pulled entirely.
The news was shared in a blog post on the developers’ forum by Google’s Krish Vitaldevara, Director of Product Management Trust & Safety for Google Play, that laid out a tentative timeline for the implementation of the new policy effective in April. While the policy takes effect in April, Google will only start enforcing in stages. Starting in August, all news apps in the Play store that surreptitiously collect background location data will need prior approval by Google, and in November, every app that tracks background location information will have to be approved or will face being yanked from the Android app store.
“As we took a closer look at background location usage, we found that many of the apps that requested background location didn’t actually need it,” Vitaldevara wrote. “In fact, many of these apps could provide the same user experience by only accessing location when the app is visible to the user.”
Google will now weigh a number of factors before granting approval for apps to track user location data when users aren’t actively using the app, including whether it is expected by the user and whether collecting such data serves the “primary purpose” of the Android app. What this means is that your fitness or steps tracking app, or one intended to send emergency or safety alerts, will likely have much stronger cases than say, a content streaming app or a game—unless that game involves constantly sharing your location data, even when the app is closed.
In addition, Google’s Android 11 rollout later this year will include a permissions feature for users to allow an app to receive location data “one time,” much like Apple already does. (Android users can currently opt to restrict location tracking to while the app is in use.) Vitaldevara said these changes will apply to all apps in the Play store, including Google’s own.
It’s a little early to go congratulating Google on doing the bare minimum to enforce privacy standards for background location data just yet—the policy change won’t even officially be enforced until much later this year. But it does signal that Google understands that privacy enforcement shouldn’t primarily be the responsibility of users and that at the very least, it needs to do more to help protect users from greedy apps covertly sucking up more user data than they should be—Google’s included.