How Much Privacy Protection Will Google's Android L Provide?

Google's local encryption will make it harder for law enforcement or malicious actors to access the contents of devices running Android L.
Posted at 2:12 PM, Sep 19, 2014

Google is planning to improve encryption in its next version of Android.

The Washington Post reports data will be encrypted by default in Android L, the forthcoming update to Google's mobile operating system.

The security measure has been optional since 2011. The release of Android L will mark the first time it's enabled right out of the box.

Tech press and industry watchers are hailing Google's move as a welcome reinforcement to existing policy.

The Supreme Court ruled in June law enforcement needed warrants to access material stored on smartphones in most circumstances. Local encryption will make it tougher to gain access, even with the appropriate court orders.

GigaOM says authorities won't be able to go through Google to get to your phone's data, either.

"Like Apple’s iOS 8, Android L will apparently make it impossible for the software vendor to bypass the user’s passcode to decrypt the data stored on the device – so if the cops or the feds come knocking, tough, there's nothing Apple nor Google can do to help them."

But even as it's a step forward for privacy, it's going to come with a couple caveats.

First, says a writer at Ars Technica, the measure will only protect locally stored data. Anything in the cloud is still fair game.

"Smartphones today have cloud backup systems for just about everything, so while [default encryption] will probably protect you from individuals trying to snoop in on a stolen or resold phone, there's nothing to stop the police from getting a warrant for your cloud data."

Android's fragmented version history will be a practical hurdle, as well. Google's currently tracking five different generations of the OS on the market.

And SlashGear points to all the different manufacturers who partner with Android — each of whom decides its own update schedule. Long story short, default encryption is likely to be inconsistent across the ecosystem.

And for a more cynical perspective, there's no guarantee authorities won't just legislate their way around the new protection.

Techdirt writes: "Of course, you can expect to see the DOJ pushing for new laws to somehow block this or get backdoor access. It may create a future fight worth watching."

Google says it expects to release Android L sometime later this year.