Android 11 is here, and while the early developer previews and beta builds have shown us most of what is available, there is a lot behind the scenes that changed. Many of those changes have to do with user privacy, which is something that affects us all.
The changes themselves don't seem like major additions to what has become the most used operating system in the world, and that's by design. The team working on user privacy had the tough job of giving us more control and being proactive through the OS itself without anything feeling complicated or disruptive.
To get the full story on what was changed and some of the thoughts that went into those changes, which you can read in detail in our Android 11 review, I sat down with Google Product Manager and privacy specialist, Charmaine D'Silva, for a discussion about what it all means and how it all works.
The most important thing we all should know is that Android has been built from the ground up to protect user privacy. It doesn't seem that way sometimes with all the data Google collects about us, but we have the choice to opt-out of that collection and if we don't the data is anonymized — to Google's computers, we're just a random number.
The most forward-facing privacy features in Android 11 are changes to permissions and adding the "one-time" permission for apps that use location, your camera, or your microphone. This is an extension of Android 10's "while-in-use" permission for background location that allowed you to prevent any app from tracking you while you weren't using it.
Google looked at user data and approached the idea of adding more user control to some critical privacy features in Android 11:
Google says that a lot of people are actually using these new features, too, far more than in previous years.
Because of the great feedback Android 10's control over background location received, Google decided to provide even more control through the use of "one-time" permissions that allow you to let an app do a thing only while you're using it this time. The permission to continue using a feature or having access to it is not granted after you close it:
Another major change under the hood for Android 11 is that an app that hasn't been used for 39 days can have its permissions automatically revoked. If this happens you'll get a system message telling you about it, and you can, of course, re-enable permissions the next time you use the app.
D'Silva explains that this is one of the times that Google decided to be proactive rather than let a user handle the task because Android permissions aren't easy waters to navigate:
Giving users additional prompts wasn't the best strategy, according to Google.
Android apps have access to a lot of different permissions. So many that it's almost impossible to keep track of why any particular app would need any particular permission.
I asked if there were any particular permissions that received special attention because of their potential for privacy abuse and if Google paid any extra attention because of user data about how apps behave on our phones:
I also asked if the general belief that half of Android users always just click yes while the other half always click no when presented with permission dialogs was true. I know plenty of people, especially tech writers, have this conception (including yours truly) but it turns out it's really not the case:
I am pleasantly surprised by this and love hearing how actual data dispels any notion that many users just don't care. Next, I asked about what Google was doing to make sure users aren't frustrated by seeing dialogs that ask for permissions as the types of changes we see in Android 11 are expanded:
I know that many "advanced" users have asked for the same sort of privacy checkup that Google offers for your account on the web be made available for our phones. D'Silva says Google decided to be more proactive, knowing the data would show users wanted to have unused app's permissions revoked based on Android 10's background location reminder:
Because of its controversial history, I had to ask about Scoped Storage. Scoped Storage is a big change in how apps store and share data that is also a big boost to user privacy. I asked about any developer pushback and how involved the privacy team was in its development.
I asked how the team worked to make sure that none of these changes would make our experience using Android worse. For example, would automatically revoking permissions be able to break older apps (we all use a few) and what Google did to make sure the experience was still as good as ever when it comes to installing and using third-party applications?
My final question was partially in jest but I know it's also the same question all of us have: Any sneak peeks into features for Android 12?
Nope. But D'Silva did suggest that everyone with any ideas be sure to forward them to Google because they all want to keep giving us the features we want to see whenever they can.
The company isn't going to change how it tracks users — again, it's anonymously collected and you are but a number only a computer recognizes — but it is more mindful of making sure we know how we're sharing our data, and more importantly, how to not share it when we don't want to.
I want to thank everyone at Google who made this possible and especially Ms. D'Silva for taking time out of her busy schedule to have a chat about privacy with me. I left the meeting feeling like Google understands how important privacy is to all of us, even if some of us care more than others.
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