Google’s privacy-focused ad tracking solution hits Android in beta

Privacy Sandbox is the company’s attempt to enhance user privacy without harming advertisers.


Google is rolling out a beta of Privacy Sandbox for Android starting today. The program is the company’s attempt to blend user privacy with targeted advertising, something the search giant has worked on for years in its planned shift away from cookie-based web tracking.

One of Privacy Sandbox’s pillars is the Topics API, which pulls a list of your top interests based on usage. It then compares them to a database from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Google’s data. Partner publishers can ping the API, which responds with a list of interests to help serve relevant ads without sharing overly intrusive information. Google says stored interests are “kept for only three weeks, and old topics are deleted.” In addition, the data and processing are done on-device “without involving any external servers, including Google servers.”

The beta is the first time Privacy Sandbox has been available publicly on Android. Google is still working on Privacy Sandbox for Chrome (here’s the timeline), which it has been letting developers test for about a year. It says it received feedback from hundreds of companies, which has helped shape its approach.

Popup on an iPhone screen, saying, “Allow ‘App’ to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?” The choices to respond are “Ask App Not to Track” and “Allow.
Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) alert. (Apple)

Privacy Sandbox is Google’s answer to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT), which the iPhone maker introduced in iOS 14.5. The feature requires user consent to track them across other apps and websites. Google dismisses ATT as a “blunt approach” since it doesn’t offer an alternate way for app developers and advertisers to replace the lost income from cookie-based targeting.

Privacy vs. advertising is an arms race. When platforms like iOS block the old ways of profiting from ads, advertisers can (and do) resort to fingerprinting: collecting seemingly innocent device information that, when pieced together, may identify you nearly as well as cookies. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to detect and prevent. Google hopes Privacy Sandbox will strike the right balance between privacy and advertiser / developer revenue.

Google says the Privacy Sandbox beta will roll out gradually, starting with “a small percentage of Android 13 devices” and expanding from there. You’ll see a notification on your device inviting you to join the beta if selected. After accepting, you can visit the new Privacy Sandbox section in your device’s Settings menu to view tracked topics and opt out individually. Additionally, the menu lets you leave the program.