Google reportedly scraped data on how competitors' apps are used on Android — and the revelation could complicate looming antitrust investigations into the company

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  • Google reportedly gathered data on competitor's apps by tracking how they were being used on people's Android devices, according to a new investigation from The Information.
  • The revelation could factor into ongoing antitrust investigations against Google, which are probing whether the company used its hardware and software advantages to quash competition.
  • It's also reminiscent of a Facebook product called Onavo that was marketed as a VPN app but quietly sent data from users' devices back to Facebook. Facebook later discontinued the app after blowback.
  • Google said in a statement that, while it did access competing apps' data using Android, it has made similar metrics available to external developers.

Google reportedly gathered data from people's Android devices that showed how competitors' apps were being used, according to a new investigation from The Information.

The revelation shines light on one tactic Google used to stay abreast of competitors — and it could complicate ongoing antitrust investigations into the company in the US and abroad. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet, is set to testify before members of Congress this month as a House subcommittee nears the end of its investigation.

Google reportedly used data gathered through the previously unreported program to plan the release of its TikTok competitor in India, tracking how frequently Android users in the market opened apps like TikTok and how long they spent browsing the apps.
A Google spokesperson told Business Insider that Google has gathered usage data on apps through a public software program that has also been made available to third-party developers, and added that Google also uses this data to improve its services.

"For example, Google uses this app usage information— which is obtained solely via this API—to enable Android's Adaptive Battery feature, which allocates battery power to the apps people use most frequently," the spokesperson said. "The API doesn't obtain any information about in-app activity and our collection of this data is disclosed to and controllable by users."

While developers can use this tool to see data on devices where there app is installed and they've been granted access, Google can use the same tool to access data on any Android phone that has Google apps installed.

The tool is reminiscent of Onavo, a controversial app purchased by Facebook in 2018 that the company used to gather usage data on competing apps. Onavo — which was marketed as a VPN app — also quietly gleaned information from the smartphones of people who downloaded it and sent it back to Facebook. Facebook later discontinued the app after it was removed from the Apple app store following backlash.