DuckDuckGo’s anti-tracking system works by setting up a firewall that blocks all traffic to sources that it identifies as trackers. While Android classifies this as a virtual private network, or VPN, DuckDuckGo notes that it’s not routing app data through remote servers. Instead, all the blocking happens locally on the device itself, so there’s no trade-off in connection speed or concern about your data being compromised.
Note that on iOS, Apple doesn’t directly block any trackers. Instead, selecting “Ask App Not to Track” when prompted prevents that app from seeing your advertising ID, which it can use to track users’ activity from one app to the next. While Apple says that apps should honor this request by not tracking user through other methods, some apps disregard those rules and continue to track users anyway. That means DuckDuckGo is going a step further than Apple, proactively blocking traffic regardless of what permissions they’ve sought. (On iOS, a free app called Lockdown provides a similar layer of extra protection.)
Keep in mind that not all tracking attempts are nefarious: Many apps use external analytics tools to track bugs and understand how people are using their products. DuckDuckGo makes no attempt to distinguish these benign trackers from those that might be trying to target you for ads.
Taking a peek at DuckDuckGo’s tracking log can be insightful. Here’s just a small sampling of what the app blocked during a typical day of my phone usage: Six attempts by Twitter to reach Innovid, a firm that specializes in targeting users with ads on streaming TV devices. 73 tracking attempts in Yelp, including calls to the tracking firms Braze and Branch Metrics. 11 attempts by my bank to reach Adobe, which offers an array of ad targeting products.
Attempts to reach Google by Ecobee, Spotify, Jimmy John’s, and Yelp.
DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused search engine, is now stepping in with its own privacy precautions for Android users. In its Android app, a new App Tracking Protection feature would automatically prevent third-party trackers in all other apps. Users will now be able to see which apps are attempting to track them and where they are sending data. The feature is now in secret beta testing, and users can sign up for a waitlist in DuckDuckGo’s Android app under Settings > App Tracking Protection. This function has been on my Google Pixel 4a 5G for the past week, and it has already made me feel better about using an Android phone.
To identify potential trackers, DuckDuckGo says it tests popular Android apps to see what kind of information they send, including identifiers, device information, email addresses, and GPS information. If a sites collects a certain threshold of identifying information, DuckDuckGo classifies it as a tracker and cuts it off from receiving any data.