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Google tightens Android policies, shrinking already-limited mobile ad tracking

  • Google is cracking down on advertisers’ ability to track users on Android devices, according to a company update. The new change specifically prohibits developers from accessing a nonconsenting user’s unique advertising identifier, called an Advertising ID.
  • Developers previously could access Advertising IDs regardless of whether a user opted out of personalized ads, gaining information on device usage to share with advertisers. The new update removes this identifier when a user disables personalization in their Android settings. Developers who attempt to access the identifier beyond this point will receive a string of zeros.
  • This tracking change will affect apps on Android 12 starting in late 2021 and will expand to all apps on devices that use Google Play — Android’s app store — by early 2022, per the update. The move mirrors Apple’s recent Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) changes and further limits advertisers’ abilities on mobile.

Google’s tracking change is the tech giant’s latest effort to provide a more privacy-forward experience for its users. Although Android has long allowed users to opt out of personalized ads, unique Advertising IDs have still provided app developers a way to track device usage, which is valuable information for advertisers who deploy ads on those apps.

As part of a Google Play services update later this year, however, these IDs will be eliminated when a user opts out of personalization. The tracking change comes as Google, among other tech companies, are prioritizing digital privacy amid a shift in consumers’ desire to protect their personal data. Google has already made a significant step in this direction by announcing it will phase out third-party cookies by 2022. This week, the company unveiled its second beta for the Android 12 operating system, which includes a privacy dashboard that lets users more easily learn which apps have accessed their device’s microphone, camera and location.

For advertisers, the emphasis on privacy is making the mobile space an increasingly difficult channel in which to market. Google’s tracking change mirrors Apple’s iOS 14.5 software update from earlier this year, when the company made its IDFA an opt-in feature, meaning developers must now ask permission from users in order to access their device’s ID. Though it’s too early to tell how many users will disable Google’s tracking mechanism, high opt-out numbers for Apple’s update could signal what’s to come. In addition, Apple this week announced additional privacy protections across its operating systems, including iOS, that could affect mobile marketers.

Mobile advertisers have been busy looking for alternatives, including consolidation into other companies in an effort to strengthen in-house marketing capabilities. Location-based contextual targeting has also emerged as a possible option, and some marketers are looking overseas to develop workaround methods.

Google’s new restrictions arrive as the company is opening new avenues for marketers in other areas of its business. Last month, it expanded access to ads tools on its e-commerce platform, as well as announcing partnerships with WooCommerce, GoDaddy and Square. These offerings build on an earlier update that saw Google teaming with Shopify and developing new tech to attract both marketers and shoppers.

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