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August 26, 2022

I went to not one, but two in-person events last night. It was fun to see people outside of their natural Zoom environment.

Today's newsletter is 1,250 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: One more way apps can track your clicks

Illustration of a phone screen displaying a person peeking through blinds with binoculars.
Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

The browsers built into popular apps like Facebook and Twitter provide convenience for users looking to read a page — but also open them to broad privacy and security risks, Axios' Sam Sabin and I report.

The big picture: In-app browsers allow mobile users to follow links and read web pages without having to switch out of the app they're using. But it's difficult to audit who ends up with the data trails this browser activity creates — and that personal information could end up in the hands of the app maker.

How it works: Both Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) say they apply the same rules to in-app browsers that they apply to any other part of an app that they distribute in their app stores: Both companies require app makers to disclose all information they collect as part of their privacy policies.

  • Google also says it looks for data collected via in-app browser as part of its automated scans of apps submitted to the Google Play store.
  • Apple's policies also prohibit particularly egregious abuses, such as surreptitiously discovering passwords or other private data.

Driving the news: Security researcher Felix Krause published a series of findings recently — including a report on TikTok last week and an earlier look at Instagram and Facebook — suggesting that many in-app browsers contain code that gives the app owners the ability to monitor what users tap, click or type.

Between the lines: App developers have the potential to collect more user information when they make use of an in-app browser to open links — and that could lead to more hidden data collection and heightened security risks, experts tell Axios.

  • Simple modifications to in-app browsers could easily allow platforms to track when someone types, clicks on a link or taps the screen, said Nick Doty, a senior fellow focused on internet architecture at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
  • This is true of all browsers, but with in-app browsers, users typically don't realize that they've shifted into a different environment that might have different data collection practices, Doty told Axios.

Yes, but: It's hard to say whether TikTok, Facebook or any other app developer is actually making any use of the data collected from these browsers.

  • TikTok has said the report's findings are "incorrect and misleading" and that they don't "collect keystroke or text inputs" through the code Krause identified.
  • Facebook said it developed the code in question to allow it to honor users' "do not track" preferences and still send aggregated data for the purposes of targeting ads.

Our thought bubble: The new concerns over in-app browsers highlight just how impossible it is for average users to know all the ways they're being tracked online — even if the information is disclosed in privacy policies or elsewhere.

  • Most people don't read those disclosures. And it's probably unrealistic to assume the platforms are fully aware of all the data being collected on the vast universe of apps they support.

Neither Apple nor Google commented on whether they have seen examples of in-app browsers collecting data beyond what is expected or allowed.

What's next: Google and Apple have an opportunity to play a broader role as curators of their app-store ecosystems, either by setting stricter limits or more tightly examining in-app browser data collection and use.

  • App store operators could play a bigger role in regulating apps' data collection practices before letting them into the store, said Justin Sherman, research lead at Duke University's Data Brokerage Project.
  • Another option: Websites could alert visitors who are viewing their content via an in-app browser, Doty said.
  • Users, for their part, have the option to open links in a stand-alone browser rather than using the in-app browser.

2. Google to more clearly label abortion providers

An illustration of the Google logo with the spotlight on the first two letters
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Google announced Thursday that its maps and search results will start clearly labeling results for healthcare facilities that provide abortions, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

Why it matters: When users browse Google Search or Maps, they will be able to more clearly tell which facilities provide abortions and which may be a crisis pregnancy center or another place that does not provide abortion.

  • Lawmakers have been urging Google to make such changes to keep users away from misleading results for clinics, while Republican state attorneys general have urged Google to keep crisis pregnancy centers in search results.
  • Yelp announced earlier this week it will flag listings for crisis pregnancy centers, Axios previously reported.
  • Google's changes are part of a series of improvements to Search and Maps, the company said. Google-owned YouTube announced tighter rules barring abortion-related misinformation last month.

Driving the news: Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and dozens of state laws went into effect severely limiting or banning abortion, tech platforms have been forced to respond with new policies as people seek information about abortion online.

If the company has confirmed that a healthcare facility provides abortions, the label will say "Provides abortions."

  • Otherwise, the label will read, "Might not provide abortions."
  • That label could appear for other types of health care facilities beyond crisis pregnancy centers.

What they're saying: "We get confirmation that places provide a particular service in a number of ways, including regularly calling businesses directly and working with authoritative data sources," a Google spokesperson said.

What's next: Online platforms big and small are going to face further tough decisions around abortion information.

  • Last week, employees wrote to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai urging the tech giant to protect the personal data of users seeking information about abortion.

3. SpaceX, T-Mobile plan to fill wireless gaps

SpaceX and T-Mobile are partnering to bring wireless phone service to remote areas with spotty coverage.

Driving the news: T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced the collaboration Thursday at the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, Texas, claiming the service will roll out next year and work with existing phones.

Details: They're planning to provide text coverage "practically everywhere" in the continental U.S., Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters, according to a T-Mobile news release.

  • The companies will create a new network broadcast from Starlink's satellites using T-Mobile bandwidth.
  • It'll start with MMS and messaging apps and eventually expand to include data and voice, Sievert said.

What they're saying: "Now, you can call for help," Musk said. "It will save lives. We will no longer read about these tragedies where people got lost and if only they could've called for help, they would be OK."

  • "This partnership has a vision that is the end of mobile dead zones," Sievert said. It's about "imagining a future where if you have a clear view of the sky, you are connected on your mobile phone."

4. Take note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Twitter engineering vice president Sandeep Pandey is leaving the beleaguered company to join Meta's AI team, Insider reported.

ICYMI

  • Sony's PlayStation 5 is getting a surprise price hike in most of the world — but not the U.S. — because of the rough global economy. (Axios)
  • A Delaware court ruled that Twitter has to turn over some data to Elon Musk, but not nearly as much as Musk had sought. (Reuters)
  • Truth Social, the Trump-backed social media network, lost a bid to trademark its name. (Axios)
  • Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Joe Rogan that the company's new VR headset is coming in October. (CNBC)

5. After you Login

You know those photos they take of you when you are on a big roller coaster? Here's how to really do those right.