Can We Trust Google’s Find My-Style Tracking Network? Probably Not

They totally won’t be tempted to peek

Key Takeaways

  • Google’s answer to Apple’s Find My is called ‘Spot.’
  • Spot was spotted in a beta version of Google Play Services.
  • People might have a hard time believing Google won’t track them.
Someone using Find My on an iPhone.

Unsplash / Mockup Photos

Google may be creating its own version of Apple’s Find My network, called Spot, allowing you to track devices even when they are not connected to the internet. What could possibly go wrong?

Google is playing catch-up. Apple already deployed its formidable Find My network, and Amazon has purchased Tile, the other major player in passive tracking tech. Apple rumor site 9to5Mac discovered the new Spot feature in a beta version of Google’s Play Services, and it looks like the company is planning to sneak it into many existing Android phones. But will users trust Google not to use this to track them?

"Google will be able to trace and monitor all nearby Google devices easily and to profile users more precisely," Mykola Srebniuk, head of information security at MacPaw, told Lifewire in an email. "This is all about the ads business. Therefore, privacy will be replaced with confidentiality in a way that Google again will know everything."

The Apple Advantage

Apple’s Find My network has a massive advantage over any other tracker tech. Instead of requiring the lost device to connect to the internet to report its position, Find My uses any of over a billion iOS devices to do the detecting.

This means the lost device only has to send out a Bluetooth SOS blip, which uses almost no power. This lets AirTags work for over a year on a single coin-cell battery and is why Apple will be able to add passive Find My support to the AirPods Pro with a firmware update.

Closeup of someone holding an Apple AirTag.

Onur Binay / Unsplash

Independent trackers, like the Tile, suffer because they need users to install an app and let that app run in the background to create the tracking network. Apple and Google can build it into the operating system, meaning that it is automatically switched on for all users and that it doesn’t cause any extra battery drain.

Play Services is kind of like a Google operating system that runs between Android, itself, and the apps on your phone. It manages essentials like push notifications, location requests, and other low-level functions. The most important part is that Play Services can be updated independently of the phone’s operating system.

So even if, say, Samsung has abandoned updates for your handset, you can still get Play Services updates from Google. This is the vector it could use to deploy the Spot tracker, should it see a public release. 

Google’s Trust Problem

Technically, Google is big enough to solve any problems. But when it comes to trust, it won’t be so easy. 

"People will not trust Google," Miranda Yan, co-founder of vehicle tracking site Vinpit, told Lifewire via email, "As everyone knows, Google makes the majority of its revenue by delivering advertisements. When you open Google Maps, for example, it saves a snapshot of your location."

"On Android phones, daily weather updates identify your approximate location. The issue is not one of the technical limitations. Google's only problem is gaining people's trust. When it comes to privacy, consumers will always prefer Apple."

"This is all about the ads business. Therefore, privacy will be replaced with confidentiality in a way that Google again will know everything."

Apple managed to launch the AirTag without much pushback in terms of privacy. That’s partly because of its history of walking the talk when it comes to protecting its users, and partly because it was very careful to work through all the privacy implications. 

For instance, AirTags incorporate several anti-stalking measures, where your iPhone warns you if a strange AirTag is riding along with you. And Apple is even working on Android software that will do the same for people who don’t use Apple devices.

And, infamously, AirTags were on the cusp of launching for well over a year. This "delay" may come down to the pointlessness of launching a tracker when everyone was at home during lockdown, but could also be due to excessive care over these privacy features, and the messaging around them. 

But Google does have one area where it respects privacy—its alliance with Apple in making COVID-tracing apps last year. The principle behind that tech is the same one used in Apple’s Find My, and it’s likely that Google would base Spot on the same tech. 

It seems like passive tracking is going to be a big deal. Let’s hope that Google makes it privacy-friendly.

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