Google remotely changed the settings on a bunch of phones running Android 9 Pie

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Yesterday a mix of people who own Google Pixel phones and other devices running Android 9 Pie noticed that the software’s Battery Saver feature had been switched on — seemingly all by itself. And oddly, this was happening when the phones were near a full charge, not when the battery was low. As reported by Android Police, initially it was assumed that this was some kind of minor bug in the latest version of Android, which was only released a few weeks ago. Some users thought they might’ve just enabled Battery Saver without realizing.

But it was actually Google at fault.

The company posted a message on Reddit last night acknowledging “an internal experiment to test battery saving features that was mistakenly rolled out to more users than intended.” So Google had remotely — and accidentally — changed a phone setting for a bunch of real-world customers. Several staffers at The Verge experienced the issue. “We have now rolled battery saver settings back to default. Please configure to your liking,” the Pixel team wrote on Reddit before apologizing for the error.

This wasn’t just limited to Pixel phones, however; devices including the Essential Phone, OnePlus 6, Nokia handsets, and others running Pie (even in beta form) switched Battery Saver on without any user action. According to Google, when active, Battery Saver:

So that might’ve resulted in some frustration for users who didn’t even realize it was on.

Both Apple and Google have emergency means of forcing updates or making other changes to iOS and Android, respectively. It’s a necessary option to have at their disposal for user safety and security, and it’s not a new one. Way back in 2008, Steve Jobs confirmed that Apple had a kill switch option for malicious apps; he told The Wall Street Journal “hopefully we never have to pull that lever, but we would be irresponsible not to have a lever like that to pull.” But it’s the silent and invasive nature of Google’s mistake that’s bothering people.

You’d hope there would be more walls between internal Android tests at Google and the Android OS that customers are using daily on their personal devices.

Comments

I’m fairly ride or die for Android. Although I love my iPad, when it comes to smartphones I find that Android just improves my workflow, and the Pixel 2 XL is one of my favorite (albeit flawed) smartphones I’ve ever owned.

Despite my adoration for the platform, there is absolutely no excuse for this, and Google’s weak response makes it that much worse. I really, really don’t appreciate that Google has the power to literally enable a setting on my phone remotely, something I never would’ve considered they could do.

I’m sure plenty of people will say I’m being overly sensitive, and honestly, I might be, but frankly, this kind of slip up (and response) is enough to make me want to switch from Android.

I don’t feel like you are being overly sensitive. It’s just some people don’t mind a giant corporation completely owning them.

Google has no business fucking with settings on an individuals phone. It’s invasive and bullshit. But invasiveness is an artform Google is perfecting.

The ease with which people get "used to" to such things baffles me. Every time such stories surface, most people are like "meh, ¯\(ツ)/¯ "

Google collecting location data even after opting out? "you are dumb if you believed Google isn’t collecting data"

Google can remote control your phone? "why are you surprised? they make the OS."

3-letter-agency snooping on all citizens? "whatchugonna do? leave earth?"

That’s because this IS an overreaction. Companies run A/B testing the whole time. Code lives in your device that can do both A or B, and a server flag decides which it will show to you. Not just the OS but every single major app developer does it. What happened here is simply a case of that. It’s not that Google logged into your device, manually scrolled though the content on the screen, reached out for the battery saver icon, and tapped it.

Sometimes I don’t understand the internet.

Microsoft: We collect anonymized information about your settings; instant massive outrage

Google: We can individually control users’ settings remotely; "just an A/B test – perfectly fine"

Oh, and I understand A/B testing showing different options to users; that’s a passive test. Changing a user’s setting without their permission is not okay.

If you don’t mind, I’m just going to auto-forward all sent and received messages on your phone to somewhere for safe keeping. Don’t worry, I won’t tell you so you don’t know about it.

Please, don’t overreact.

Ah.. the good ol’ slippery slope argument. Wake me up when someone actually proves ill-intent by Google. Until then, I trust them because using their products makes my life genuinely better & easier.

Ah.. the good ol’ slippery slope argument. Wake me up when someone actually proves ill-intent by Google. Until then, I trust them because using their products makes my life genuinely better & easier.

Well gosh,it rarely ever starts out as intentional. Anyway the slippery slope argument is not like fake y’know, since we have been here before, and might i add made the same mistakes before several times actually, and most of the time the slope starts out as lack of foresight, lack of care, curiosity, greed, and maybe even a little frustration, or even an over engineered solution. Never intentional.

Don’t believe me, these some of the non intentional examples:

  • origins of DOS attack and the link between multi user systems and the ext command, curiosity.
  • Modern DOS, unintended use of the udp or tcp protocols and telnet, it was never intended to be used in the way they are being exploited now either. lack of foresight.
  • SQL injection, "According to Microsoft, what you’re about to read is not a problem, so don’t worry about doing anything to stop it." a quote from the the guy who wrote the magazine that publicly detailed SQL injection.
  • the NPM left pad controversy, "Although I feel very sorry for interrupting people’s work, I did it for the benefit of the community in long term. NPM’s monopoly won’t be dictated to the free software community anymore." frustration
  • most recent the xiaomi bricking issue that’s happening in part because google introduced anti-rollback protection measures in android oreo, and made it mandatory, now comes xiaomi, and their agressive implementation, or better yet their aggressive interpretation of anti roll back, and boom you have you have unintended consequences."The gist of the feature is that it’ll prevent your phone from booting if it detects that the device was downgraded to an earlier, now unapproved version of software that has been deemed insecure because of a security vulnerability."- from xda. Ironic you can’t downgrade your own phone from a say an official beta version of their software to an earlier version without waiting as long as 60 days without xiaomi to authorise it.If you do try or didn’t know…well you have a fancy paperweight now.

anyway there are many more, but as computer scientist myself i know some things will be unavoidable, there is no real straight and narrow path.I don’t I think google(or any other company) is explicitly trying to compromise their customers either, but it’s still eyebrow raising, whenever these mishaps pop up. Especially considering we’re paying an increasing premium for these things.This ability shouldn’t be available on phones not connected to google’s own internal testing networks, or at the very least not even be possible to change settings without actually rolling out an update to my phone, so i can refuse it.

A simple analogy. if i buy a car from someone i don’t expect(or want tbh) that person to still have keys, or the ability to come and change my seating position, mess with my radio station,without me knowing, ya dig, those things ain’t right.I didn’t signup for that.

I’m completely with you here. Anyone who didn’t think Google has full control over every android device out there is plain dumb. Until I see evidence of something problematic I’m all good. I don’t classify "toggling a setting" by mistake as an act of dystopian evil.

Whereas sfZero’s post was great, yours is simply uninformed. Google doesn’t have full control over anything. They do have some measure of remote control on some model phones running certain versions of software (which probably can be said of Apple too). Feel free to flash AOSP or /e/ and BAMF! you don’t have any Google on your phone anymore.

There are tons of options out there, and Google’s Android Implementation!= Android Open Source, you just have to bother to inform yourself and seek a phone without a locked bootloader (or with an unlockable bootloader, as you prefer).

Companies run A/B testing the whole time.

They shouldn’t. Simple as that.

Especially not on a product as important as a phone or PC

It’s not that Google logged into your device, manually scrolled though the content on the screen, reached out for the battery saver icon, and tapped it.

Not yet anyway, so everything’s just super.

I’m totally in the over reaction crowd on this. There are two aspects of this that seem concerning to people.
1. This kind of a slip should never happen. No internal testing should leak out to consumers phones. Agreed. And Google agreed. And I’m sure they have fixed the problem and will strive to prevent that happening in the future. Many of us are software developers and know mistakes happen. The right thing to do is own up and fix it. Google’s done that.

2. Google shouldn’t have the ability to make changes to users phones in the first place. Google has added AI based battery improvements in Pie. At least on my Pixel 2 XL, it’s pretty noticeable. And in fact, perhaps over done because sometimes, when I pick up my phone from rest for a long time, it’s sluggish for a few seconds as it kicks off a whole bunch of background tasks. I’m sure they are busy tuning it. It’s very possible that the battery saver testing was for that feature. I have absolutely no problem in Google managing that. To believe that Google shouldn’t change your battery saver setting is to essentially say you don’t want the AI based battery management. I haven’t looked to see if it can be disabled. But if it can, just do it and probably this A/B testing may not happen to you. The reason many of us use Android, is precisely for the smarts that Google brings us. If it’s not, then you should be looking for a different vendor or Apple.

It was A/B testing, which is done all the time. It’s not exactly nefarious and Google’s response to it was perfectly fine.

As somewhat of a Google fan I disagree – the response was bad and points to a lack of internal controls on this stuff.

It’s kinda like when the emergency services in my country accidentally sent out a test alert to everyone and were all like ‘oh well shit happens’ in response.

Shouldn’t A/B testing be limited to beta testers and not to people who purchased devices with the release version of the operating system on them?

I could even imagine an opt-in setting where stable version users could opt-in to A/B testing (Of course, only half of them would get any given change at one time for obvious reasons), but just doing it to a device that people paid good company for, in some case over a thousand dollars for plus their regular phone bills, without permission, is not right.

The problem isn’t the A/B testing that changes remote settings, the problem is that apparently you can be opted into it whether you like it or not. It’d be fine for beta testers or people who opt-in, but that’s not what happened.

Google has no business fucking with settings on an individuals phone.

They all do it. Don’t forget Apple did it with your CPU speed to "save battery" without admitting that for far longer than Google’s relatively minor mistake here.

"X has not business doing Y"
"But Z does Y too!"

Why are you talking about Z?

Just covering the bases. They all do it in a certain way, and it sucks regardless of who does it.

Haven’t you heard? "But what about…" is totally in right now.

They didn’t remote into your phone and change a software setting.
The battery stuff was part of an iOS update that people installed.
This is not the same thing.

Not the same thing at all. Apple wasn’t remote connecting into your phone and changing settings without notification. It was an OS update that people installed, and an engineering decision made to legitimately preserve battery life and phone-on time without the damn thing crashing every minute.

But you’re completely right, Apple sucks and Google should rule the world…

and an engineering decision made to legitimately preserve battery life and phone-on time without the damn thing crashing every minute.

More like it was a corporate decision to try and hide the fact that they’d installed a bunch of bad batteries that should really have been replaced.

It’s like saying VW made a legit engineering decision to cheat on emissions and avoid the expense of DEF in their small vehicles.

More like it was a corporate decision to try and hide the fact that they’d installed a bunch of bad batteries that should really have been replaced.

{citation needed}

{citation needed}

That’s literally what happened

https://support.apple.com/en-nz/HT208387

Note the battery health screen that exposes this information was only implemented after the whole thing blew up

e. It sin’t just an Apple problem, same thing happened with the Nexus 6P – just Google didn’t resort to software tricks to try and hide it

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