Google reportedly uses an internal program called ‘Android Lockbox’ to collect information about how Android users interact with non-Google apps and services.
The report comes from The Information (via The Verge) and details how the program works. Lockbox is part of the Google Mobile Services (GMS) package and allows Google employees to see “sensitive” data about other apps. That data can include how often users open those apps and how long people use them.
Sources told The Information that Google used the system to keep tabs on rivals to its services, such as Gmail, or to monitor Facebook and Instagram usage. Further, the report suggests Google may have used the tool to plan the launch of a TikTok competitor call Shorts.
Although Google employees can access information, The Information reports that they must first request access. Google sometimes denies these requests.
On top of this, The Information says that Lockbox collects the most useful information when users agree to share information with Google as part of the Android setup process. Google tells users that the data allows it to offer a more personalized experience, but according to The Information, it also provides data for competitive research.
Google says the program is public and other developers can view similar data
In response to The Information, Google admitted that it has access to usage data from rival apps. However, the company said the program is public and other developers can view similar data. Although other developers can view the data, it’s believed that Google’s reach is much further since it covers and device with Google’s preinstalled apps — or, most of the Android ecosystem. Developers, on the other hand, can only see information from phones that have their apps installed.
Further, Google said the data doesn’t reveal information about how people behave while using individual apps. The company didn’t say whether it had used the tool to develop competing apps.
The Information says that the data gathered with the tool is anonymous and not personally identifiable. Google says it discloses the data collection to users and they have control over it.
It’s worth noting that Google isn’t the first company to attempt to gather data from phones about competing services. In 2017, Facebook reportedly used a VPN service it owned to monitor rival services and plan its acquisitions, such as WhatsApp. Facebook shut down the app, called Onavo, in 2019.
Additionally, the report comes as Google faces increasing scrutiny and antitrust investigations in the U.S. CEO Sundar Pichai is expected to testify in Congress on Monday. It’s facing antitrust investigations from almost every U.S. state, and the Justice Department reportedly plans to launch its own antitrust case. Although most of these investigations reportedly focus on Google’s search and ad businesses, information about potential unfair Android practices will likely play a part.