Google follows Apple's lead and makes it harder for advertisers to track users on Android

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Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Android, Chrome and Apps for Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, June 25, 2014.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Google is tightening its privacy practices that could make it harder for companies to track users on Android phones and tablets.

Google already allows Android users to opt-out of personalized ads. But even if users do that, software developers may still access the user’s Advertising ID, a unique string of characters that identifies the user’s device. Firms can use this Advertising ID for purposes such as allowing developers to measure app usage or letting advertisers detect and prevent invalid traffic.

Following the change, if a user has opted out of personalized ads, the Advertising ID will not be available — requests for it will return only a string of zeros. 

The company said in a policy update that its rollout will affect apps running on Android 12 devices starting in late 2021 and will expand to apps running on devices that support Google Play in early 2022. It said it will “provide an alternate solution to support essential use cases such as analytics and fraud prevention” in July. 

With regulators taking a closer look at user privacy, and consumers becoming more concerned about the use of their personal data, tech giants are trying to get ahead by making changes in the name of privacy. Google said in early 2020 that it would end support for third-party cookies on its Chrome browser within two years.

But with advertising making up about 80% Google’s revenue, it also needs to keep advertisers happy by offering alternative ways to place ads in front of users they want to reach and track how effective they are. The company has been the market leader in online advertising for well over a decade, and is expected to command nearly a 29% share of digital ad spending globally in 2021, according to eMarketer.

Google’s changes will follow other changes Apple recently made for iOS devices, but are not as dramatic. Apple‘s changes make it easy for iPhone and iPad users to opt out of the kind of tracking that helps advertisers target ads or measure whether ads worked, by placing a prompt in front of them whenever they open a new app. Facebook, among others, objected strongly to the changes, saying that users would see less relevant ads and that small businesses would be hurt as targeted advertising got harder.