Google to give users more privacy control

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With Android Q, Google will be able to distribute security updates through its app store, bypassing smartphone makers

Android Q, the next major upgrade of the Android mobile operating system (OS), will give mobile phone users more control over their personal data.

Industry watchers are bullish on the upcoming OS' new privacy features announced at Google's annual I/O developer event in the United States last week.

The new OS is slated to be rolled out in the third quarter of this year. But there are limitations.

Blame it on the fragmented state of Android OS deployment and on smartphone makers' disinterest on post-sales support - a longstanding problem that has led to the lack of timely updates in users' devices, says Mr Loo Wee Teck, head of global consumer electronics research at research firm Euromonitor International.

"Almost three-quarter of Android devices are still running on old versions of Android with no or very few updates to patch any security loopholes," he says.

The Android Pie OS, released last year, was downloaded on only 10 per cent of all Android devices, and its predecessor Android Oreo, 28 per cent.

Android Pie runs on new phones such as the Samsung's Galaxy S10 and Google's Pixel 3 phones.

The situation contrasts with that of Apple's iOS platform. Because Apple controls the release of operating system software to all its devices, it is able to update the devices of the majority of its users promptly.

Google has been trying to address this issue through Project Treble - a feature found in 2017's Android Oreo that allows Google to bypass manufacturers and push security updates directly to users.

"But smartphone makers can choose not to participate in the programme," says Mr Loo.

With Android Q, Google will be able to distribute some of its security updates through its app store, bypassing smartphone makers. Known as Project Mainline, this initiative will obviate the current need for full system updates from device makers.

Another upcoming Google initiative, on-device Artificial Intelligence (AI), will go a long way to help provide assurance to consumers, says Mr Bryan Ma, research firm IDC's vice-president of devices research.

With this initiative, which is still work in progress, instead of collecting data from users and sending the data to Google's cloud for building the company's AI model, Google will "ship" the AI model to users' phones in the future. This way, users' data reside in their own devices.

Such initiatives will improve security and privacy, but their success will be tied to consumers' confidence in Google. "In order for consumers to use Google, they need to be able to trust Google," says Mr Ma. But this will not be easy, as many consumers have the perception of Google not trying hard enough to address privacy concerns, he says.

That said, he feels new privacy features in Android Q, such as auto-wiping browsing history, will help change consumers' perceptions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2019, with the headline 'Google to give users more privacy control'. Print Edition | Subscribe