An internal program at Google known as “Android Lockbox” can give the company’s employees access to information about how Android users interact with popular, non-Google apps and services, according to a new report in The Information. The program, which works via Google Mobile Services, means that employees can reportedly see “sensitive” data about other apps, including how often they’re opened and for how long they’re used.
Sources claim this information has been used to keep tabs on rivals to Google’s Gmail service or to monitor Facebook and Instagram usage. Google is also thought to have used it to plan the launch of its TikTok competitor, Shorts. The Information notes that Google’s employees have to request permission to see this data in some cases, and that these requests are sometimes denied.
The report comes as Google’s business is facing an intense amount of antitrust scrutiny in the US. Google CEO Sundar Pichai is due to testify in Congress; the company is facing an antitrust investigation by almost every US state, and the Justice Department is reportedly planning to file an antitrust case of its own. Although these investigations are believed to be focusing on the company’s search and ad businesses, discoveries about possible unfair Android business practices are unlikely to be welcomed.
The Information reports that Android Lockbox gets its most useful information when users agree to share information with Google as part of the Android setup process. Users are told that this data allows Google to offer a more personalized experience, but The Information says it also provides data for competitive research.
Responding to The Information’s report, Google admitted that it has access to usage data from rival apps, but it said that the program is public and that other developers can also access similar data. However, Google’s reach with the program is believed to be far wider, since it covers any device with Google’s preinstalled apps, while other developers can only see information from phones that have their apps. Google said that the data doesn’t give information about how people behave while they’re using individual apps, but it wouldn’t say whether it had been used to develop competing apps.
The data gathered is anonymous and is not personally identifiable, The Information says. Google says the data collection is disclosed to users and that they have control over it.
“Since 2014, the Android App Usage Data API has been used by Google and Android developers who have been authorized by Android OEMs or users to access basic data about app usage—such as how often apps are opened—to analyze and improve services,” a company spokesperson said in an email to The Verge.
According to the spokesperson, app usage information is “obtained solely via this API” and may be used to allocate battery power to frequently-used apps, for Google’s Digital Wellbeing features, and to improve app discovery in its Play Store. “The API doesn’t obtain any information about in-app activity and our collection of this data is disclosed to and controllable by users,” the spokesperson said.
Google isn’t the only company that’s been accused of trying to gather data from phones about competing services. Back in 2017, a report from The Wall Street Journal said that Facebook used a VPN service it owned, Onavo, to monitor rival services and plan its acquisitions, such as WhatsApp. The app was shut down in 2019.
UPDATE July 24th 1:59PM ET: Added comment from Google spokesperson.