Google confirms Android 11 will limit third-party camera apps due to location spying fears


Google is making a change to Android 11 that will force apps that want to take photos or videos to use the phone’s built-in camera app, even if you’ve created a different camera app, like OpenCamera, your default choice for Pictures.

“[W]We believe this is the right compromise to protect the privacy and security of our users,” the Android engineering team wrote on August 17, adding that apps that use the camera should explicitly name each of the apps third-party cameras they use. would like to support. Now Google gives us the reason: it’s to prevent bad actors from potentially harvesting your location.

It’s not a drastic change; many camera features will still work exactly as they did before. It also mirrors how the camera works on the iPhone. It wasn’t until this year that Apple allowed more third-party apps as default, if only for email and browser apps.

And yet two of the most popular third-party camera app developers tell The edge that Google’s decision seems like a disgrace. One fears it will impact his business by making third-party camera apps more like second-class citizens.

To understand what is changing, it would probably help if I first explained what remains the same:

  • You will still be able to open a third-party camera app and use it directly by tapping its icon on your home screen
  • You will still be able to take pictures with the cameras built in popular apps like Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram
  • You’ll still be able to double-press your power button (or similar shortcuts) to launch your camera app of choice, Google confirms
  • Apps will also be able to launch the camera app of your choice; they just can’t import photos or videos that way

The only thing that changes: if Android apps want to use your camera app – instead of building their own camera app – they’ll now go directly to your phone’s built-in camera app instead of letting you choose.

This is an important distinction because it means these apps cannot call home with your location. Google has updated its developer guidance to explain what it’s really about: The company is concerned about apps that might ask for photos so they can quietly track your location. When you take a photo, it’s sometimes geotagged with the GPS coordinates of where you took that photo, and a non-camera app can steal it by overlaying a camera app, even if you have never granted the original app this location permission.

That’s one thing: Shutterfly was accused of harvesting GPS coordinates from EXIF ​​metadata in 2019, and other apps have tried different tactics to circumvent Android’s permissions system.

The new behavior originally surprised Android programming book author Mark Murphy so much that he presented it as a bug, only for Android engineers to confirm it was a bug. “intentional behavior”.

And before Google’s fuller explanation, I asked some of the top third-party app developers what they thought of this decision. As the developer of the 10M+ download FV-5 camera reminded me, this is just the latest difficulty third-party camera app developers are facing right now, as OEMs like Samsung rarely allow alternative apps access to your flashy new phone’s full set of lenses or the fancier features they’ve built.

This decision “will certainly have an impact on our application and all third-party applications, as it will reduce its visibility and add unnecessary friction for the user who wants to use a third-party application like ours”, said Flavio Gonzalez, developer of Camera FV-5. He added that Google’s workaround “doesn’t make sense” because most app developers are unlikely to care enough to specifically build in support for a wide range of apps. third-party camera apps like his.

On the other hand, Footej Camera co-founder Stratos Karafotis doesn’t think the restriction is a big deal. While he agreed that Google’s workaround “doesn’t make sense”, he said users “can still use their favorite camera app” and expects them to s get used to change.

Meanwhile, OpenCamera founder Mark Harman, another developer with over 10 million downloads, mostly hoped that users would choose their camera app of choice directly from the home screen. of Android instead of relying on another app’s intent. “[T]unfortunately this limits third-party camera apps and means they can’t fully replace the built-in camera app,” he admitted, saying that “it seems a shame in my opinion to remove people’s choice here “. But he didn’t seem concerned earlier this week.

I’m a little curious if Google had to go that far, though. Why not crack down on bad camera apps that share EXIF ​​metadata instead of being wary of it by default? Or create an API that removes EXIF ​​data, perhaps? Why should Samsung, Google and, in theory, camera apps from Huawei and Xiaomi be trusted more than the little guys in the Play Store? This made me wonder if there are other security or competitive risks that Google could protect against, but the company tells me that this decision relates specifically to protecting EXIF ​​location metadata from abuse.

On the bright side, Google has another initiative designed to bring desirable features like Night Mode to more camera apps in the future, with OEMs like Samsung, LG, Oppo, Xiaomi, and Motorola at least partially on board. It’s called CameraX, and maybe third-party apps will look more like first-party ones in the future. We’ll have to see if Android phone makers are willing to lend their most interesting camera capabilities.

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