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What the heck is going on with Google’s iPhone apps?

Published Feb 11th, 2021 10:37AM EST
Google Maps
Image: Teerasan/Adobe

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  • iPhone users noticed a warning on Wednesday in prominent Google apps like Gmail and Google Maps, saying that the apps needed to be updated.
  • Google hasn’t updated its main iPhone apps since Apple has started rolling out its new privacy features in iOS 14.
  • The app update warning messages on iPhone were a bug that has been corrected, according to Google.

When Apple announced at WWDC 2020 that iOS 14 apps would require developers to disclose the kind of data they collect from users with the new privacy labels that would appear on each app’s page in the App Store, it was clear that some companies out there would not be happy with this development. Google and Facebook came to mind as the kind of tech companies that might be affected by the change. And Facebook went to the offensive in December back when the privacy label feature first began rolling out. Facebook misleadingly accused Apple of harming small businesses and the free internet with this move, although the privacy labels do not block any app from collecting data. They merely inform users about what’s going on, assuming iPhone users want to know who is tracking them and in what ways. Facebook said that it would ultimately comply, in order to keep its apps in the App Store.

Google was silent at the time but had to respond to claims that it was delaying updates to its apps in order to avoid having to add those privacy labels — and Facebook’s privacy labels are indeed incredibly long. We then learned that Google usually halts app updates in December and that all its iPhone apps would be updated soon in the new year. It’s now mid-February, and Google has yet to update its apps. But, ironically enough, even its apps have begun to demand updates.

Aside from the privacy labels, Apple is also rolling out another privacy feature that will force developers to ask for permission to track you (the App Tracking Transparency). Facebook said it would comply, but it’ll issue its own prompt to convince you to let it track you like before. Google announced that it would dump one tracker to avoid showing the permission prompt. That seemed to be an indication that Google might have other ways to collect user data without tripping Apple’s privacy alarms.

Something strange happened on Wednesday when some of Google’s iPhone apps started showing users an update warning message. It’s as if Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Photos were tired of the wait, telling iPhone users that these apps are “out of date:”

You should update this app. The version you’re using doesn’t include the latest security features to keep you protected. Only continue if you understand the risks.

Wait, what security features?

It’s unclear what caused the issue, but Google’s iPhone apps continue to work just like before. The company told The Verge that a bug caused the appearance of those prompts. “We’ve identified a bug, and an update has been rolled out to resolve this issue,” Google said. But what about the security features that would keep users protected?

Google will probably issue app updates soon for its main iPhone apps that will respect all of Apple’s new privacy requirements. The apps will show privacy labels and will ask for tracking permission where applicable. The Verge points out that Google Authenticator and Stadia have already been updated this year to include the new labels. They did not show the “out of date” error message.

But it’s still strange that Google needed so much time to roll out new updates for its apps. The only explanation that makes sense could be that Google is still figuring out how to deal with the new privacy rules in iOS 14 to help its interests the most. After all, Google’s primary revenue source is advertising, and it is user data that allows it to sell more for ads.

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.