How Google Could Make Restricted Networking Mode Matter

Keep it simple

Key Takeaways

  • Code for a new feature called Restricted Networking Mode was spotted in the Android Open Source Project for Android version 12.
  • If enabled, Restricted Networking Mode would disable most, if not all, third-party apps.
  • Restricted Networking Mode is promising, but experts are worried it could lead to more users being confused and frustrated when their favorite apps stop working.
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A new feature called Restricted Networking Mode has been spotted in the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code for Android 12, and could restrict the use of third-party applications when enabled on devices.

With Android 11 currently rolling out to major phones powered by Google’s operating system, developers are expecting previews of the company’s next major OS update, Android 12, to arrive in February. As they wait, some developers continue to dig through the AOSP code entries.

This has led to the discovery of the Restricted Networking Mode, a system-level firewall that has sparked some controversy within the Android community.

"Restricted Networking Mode is a new firewall chain that includes a set of rules the Android iptable utility follows when deciding which network traffic should be blocked or allowed," Chris Haulk, a consumer privacy expert at PixelPrivacy, explained in an email interview with Lifewire.

"This means that only apps with the right permissions will be allowed to use the network."

Cause for Concern

While the idea of a mode that restricts access to certain applications when enabled seems like a handy thing—especially for companies looking to increase security on devices they provide employees—there are some other implications to take into account with Restricted Networking Mode.

"With some tweaks, Restricted Network Mode could become a very strong addition to the suite of other privacy features that Android already offers."

According to Mishaal Rahman, editor-in-chief of XDA Developers, the current permissions for Restricted Networking Mode show that only certain system applications or those signed by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) can be granted access. This means that any third-party apps would be useless when the mode is activated.

For many, this is a huge concern, in part because of how "bloated" some devices ship. Samsung is one of the leading manufacturers of smartphones in the world. Unfortunately, the company has a bad habit of loading its new devices with what some call "bloatware"—pre-installed apps that can take up a lot of space and slow performance.

"I just saw a comment on another post saying that someone with a Galaxy S9 couldn’t uninstall Facebook," a user named chrismiles94 wrote on Reddit. "How is bloatware still a thing in 2019?"

While these default applications might be useful enough for some, others find them to be a nuisance. The Google Play Store offers hundreds—if not thousands—of different apps for users to download and apply.

Sure, there are games and other time-waster apps, but you also can find new phone dialers, messaging apps, and even miscellaneous apps available on Google's digital marketplace.

Someone using smartphone with icon technology communication and internet of things (IOT).
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Others like to break free of the OEM’s restrictions altogether by rooting their device. Rooting gives you the highest level of access to the phone's software, which then allows you to install alternate versions of the operating system.

This is like jailbreaking an iPhone, which grants you an extended level of permission.

The Silver Lining

Restricted Networking Mode does hold some positives, though, especially if Google chooses to give the user some level of control.

"While enabled, it will harden the security of the phone by not allowing unsigned apps to send or receive data," Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech, told Lifewire in an email interview.

"Although it's not clear whether end users will be able to create their own whitelists, such a feature could allow organizations to filter out unwanted traffic and enhance overall security on company-issued Android devices."

"How is bloatware still a thing..."

A per-app permission system that allows you to determine which applications should have network access has been on the Android community's wishlist for years now. And the need for a feature like this only has grown over time.

With more and more applications requiring online connections, and online privacy becoming more of a concern, granting users some level of control over how apps can connect is needed.

The current system showcased in the AOSP is a start, but it lacks the amount of user access the community wants from it. Yes, it offers more security, but it comes at a cost, one that many might be unwilling to pay in its current state.

With some tweaks, Restricted Network Mode could become a very strong addition to the suite of other privacy features that Android already offers. Without change, though, it will become another setting that users don't understand or intend to use.

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