DuckDuckGo’s Android anti-tracking tool could be “even more powerful” than iOS

Enlarge / DuckDuckGo says its App Tracking Protection automatically blocks many types of known trackers, while Apple’s App Tracking Transparency only blocks IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) and asks developers to block others.


The privacy-focused search site DuckDuckGo has added yet another way to prevent more of your data from going to advertisers by opening its App Tracking Protection for Android to beta testers.

DuckDuckGo positions App Tracking Protection as something like Apple’s App Tracking Transparency for iOS devices, but “even more powerful”. Enabling the service in the DuckDuckGo app for Android (under the “More from DuckDuckGo” section) installs a local VPN service on your phone, which can then automatically block trackers on DDG’s public block list. DuckDuckGo says it does this “without sending app data to DuckDuckGo or other external servers”.

DuckDuckGo's App Tracking Protection shows you details about what your Android apps are trying to send.
Enlarge / DuckDuckGo’s App Tracking Protection shows you details about what your Android apps are trying to send.


Google recently gave Android users some native tools to prevent wanton tracking, including app-by-app location tracking approval and a limited native ad-tracking opt-out. Apple’s App Tracking Transparency asks if users want to block apps from accessing the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), but apps can still use the largest tracking networks across many apps to better profile app users.

Allison Goodman, senior communications manager for DuckDuckGo, told Ars Technica that App Tracking Protection needs Android’s VPN permission to monitor network traffic. When it recognizes a tracker from its block list, it “looks at the destination domain for each outgoing request and blocks them if they’re on our block list and the requesting app isn’t owned by the same company that owns the domain.”

Goodman added that “much of the data collected by trackers is not checked by [Android] permissions”, making App Tracking Protection an additional offering.

App Tracking Protection launched a year ago in a limited beta. DuckDuckGo has since updated the app to show you more information about what kind of data trackers are trying to collect, “such as your exact location, age, and a digital fingerprint from your phone.” Through its testing, DuckDuckGo has seen that an Android phone with 35 apps can see 1,000 to 2,000 tracking attempts each day, sending data to more than 70 companies.

WIRED’s Matt Burgess tested the app when it launched, installing 36 apps on a new Pixel 6 Pro and logging into about half of them:

These include the McDonald’s app, LinkedIn, Facebook, Amazon and BBC Sounds. … I left the phone alone for four days and didn’t use it at all. In 96 hours, 23 of these apps had made more than 630 background tracking attempts.

When I opened the McDonald’s app, trackers from Adobe, cloud software company New Relic, Google, emotion tracking company Apptentive, and mobile analytics company Kochava tried to collect data about me. Opening the eBay and Uber apps, but not logging in, was enough to activate Google trackers.

DuckDuckGo notes that some apps are still excluded from tracking protection because they require tracking to function properly, especially browsers and apps with in-app browsers. When I installed DuckDuckGo protection on an Android phone early last year, I was having trouble renting scooters and e-bikes from Lime, and opening my apartment building’s door unlock service. Then again, that’s probably the kind of feedback DuckDuckGo is looking for in this beta.

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