Google Adds Privacy Labels to Apps. But Will They Help?

The Google Play store “nutrition labels” will have details on what data is collected and shared by app developers

Google Play Privacy Label Source: Google

Google unveiled privacy “nutrition labels” for apps in the Android App store today, providing details about what data apps collect, how it’s handled, and where the app might send the information.

These labels will appear in a new Data Safety section for each app in the Google Play store, displaying details that developers self-report about their apps’ privacy and security practices. That means more transparency for consumers, and a new tool that may help if you’re on the fence about installing an app you don’t necessarily need. 

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App developers have until July 20 to fill out the Data Safety details, so not every app will have a label at first. The first of these labels appear today, but the rollout will be gradual and some users won’t see them until the coming weeks, according to a Google blog post

Google’s labels follow a similar set of labels that started appearing in Apple’s App Store in April 2020. Privacy experts welcomed the feature at the time, but some voiced concerns about how they were implemented. 

“It is also great to see that Google is rolling out labels,” says Lorrie Cranor, professor of security and privacy technologies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and an early proponent of the privacy label technique. (Cranor is an adviser to CR’s Digital Lab.) However, Apple’s versions of these labels have been hampered by a number of factors, and it remains to be seen whether Google will face the same pitfalls, Cranor says.

What the Privacy Labels Will Tell You

“We heard from users and app developers that displaying the data an app collects, without additional context, is not enough,” Suzanne Frey, vice president of product for Android security and privacy, wrote in the blog post. “Users want to know for what purpose their data is being collected and whether the developer is sharing user data with third parties.”

The new Data Safety section in the Google Play store will house five main pieces of information on each app:

  • What data an app is collecting and how it’s used;
  • Whether the developer shares data with third parties;
  • Details about the app’s security practices;
  • Whether the app has committed to following Google Play’s Families Policy;
  • Whether the developer has validated its security practices against a global security standard.

The Data Safety section won’t be front and center when you’re looking at an app, but it will be easy to find if you’re looking for it. The company says the information will be updated as developers change their privacy and security practices.

As with Apple’s privacy labels, Google is relying on developers to report accurate information. Google says it may take “enforcement action” against developers for inaccuracies in the information they supply. That could ultimately lead to a ban from the app store, but the company didn’t provide details about what steps it will take to verify the Data Safety information.

Do Privacy Labels Work?

n theory, privacy labels can provide a clear picture of how an app handles your information, and that could enable consumers to make better decisions about the apps they use. In practice, experts say the privacy labels consumers have seen so far haven’t been effective.

Apple’s privacy labels “didn’t add too much in terms of shaping consumer behavior,” says Ariel Michaeli, CEO of AppFigures, a company that provides app store analytics and tools for developers. 

“Google Play is a different beast altogether, so I’m not going to rule out the labels having any impact, but they look a lot like Apple’s so if I had to guess, I’d say they won’t,” at least not in their current form, Michaeli says.

That may be due to poor implementation on behalf of the app stores. 

Cranor’s research group at Carnegie Mellon University conducted studies on Apple’s privacy labels with both app developers and consumers, and uncovered major shortcomings. “We found that, in general, people really like the idea of the labels but that there is a lot of confusion,” Cranor says. Developers in the studies had trouble creating accurate labels for their apps because they didn’t understand all the terminology, she says, while “the consumers didn’t know the labels existed until we pointed them out.” 

Before this article was published, Apple didn’t answer questions about how well its privacy labels have worked.

That doesn’t mean privacy labels can’t work, only that there’s room for improvement, Cranor says. She says that the labels could be featured more prominently and that app stores could offer search features to help consumers find apps that respect their privacy. 

“Ultimately, I think we need labels that are actually usable and useful for consumers,” Cranor says, “and we need tools to allow developers who are not privacy experts to be able to create them accurately.”


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Thomas Germain

I want to live in a world where consumers take advantage of technology, not the other way around. Access to reliable information is the way to make that happen, and that's why I spend my time chasing it down. When I'm off the clock, you can find me working my way through an ever-growing list of podcasts. Got a tip? Drop me an email ( thomas.germain@consumer.org) or follow me on Twitter ( @ThomasGermain) for my contact info on Signal.