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Google might be ‘spying’ on you to find the next WhatsApp

Published Jul 26th, 2020 10:33AM EDT
Google Android Lockbox
Image: Frank Hoermann/SVEN SIMON/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

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  • Google Android Lockbox is supposedly a tool that Google uses to essentially “spy” on non-Google app activity on Android phones.
  • The purpose of the data collection is for Google to enhance its products and potentially help it build competing products that could be popular with consumers.
  • Google confirmed the existence of the tool, said the data is collected from users who agree to it, and that the information is anonymized. But Google did not say whether that data has been used to create products that can rival existing apps for third parties.

Facebook paid $19 billion on WhatsApp back in 2014, which seemed like an incredibly high price tag for a mobile chat app. WhatsApp already had a large user base, which only grew since then, so the bet kind of paid off for Facebook — kind of, because it’s unclear when Facebook will make its money back. But a few years later, we learned that Facebook used a different app, a VPN service called Onavo, to spy on rivals. That’s how it ended up buying a product that competed directly against Facebook Messenger.

Fast-forward to 2020, and Google will now have to explain a similar strategy. The company is using an internal tool that can measure your app activity, a new report says. The point is to allow Google to improve its products or create others. Rather than looking for the next WhatsApp, Google might be spying on your app usage to make its own hit apps. Google has already acknowledged that it uses the service, and future investigations will likely tell us more about how Google extracts and employs that data.

It’s The Information (via The Verge) that first reported the news. Google has been using an unreported Google effort called Android Lockbox to monitor how users interact with non-Google Android apps.

Employees apparently can see “sensitive” data about other apps, including how often an app is opened and how long it’s used. Google has used Lockbox to monitor Gmail rivals and look at Facebook and Instagram usage. The service may have been used to inspire Google’s TikTok rival, Shorts.

Google employees supposedly have to ask for permission to use the data, and these requests aren’t always approved. Users have to agree to share information with Google for Lockbox to offer useful information, the report says. Users are told during the Android setup process that the information will help Google offer them a more personalized experience, but the service also provides competitive research data.

Google confirmed the existence of such information from rival apps but said the program is public and that other developers can access similar data. But that’s not a fair comparison considering that Google controls Android, and can glean a lot more information from users than developers can extract. Google also said that the data doesn’t include information about how users behave in individual apps. But Google did not confirm whether it used Lockbox for competitive purposes, such as the creation of new apps.

As expected, Google said the data is anonymous and can’t identify users. The company also noted that the data collection is disclosed to users and that they have control over it.

Antitrust regulators will likely look into these matters as well in the upcoming probes targeting tech giants, Google included. What’s interesting is that a new lawsuit targeting Google alleges that Google collects data about mobile use on phones even after people turn off Web & App Activity. The lawsuit says the data collection happens via Google’s Firebase, a software solution that allows app developers to store data, deliver notifications, and track clicks and glitches.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.