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Google has made the separation between personal and work data on smartphones a priority in the new Android 11 release, providing employees and employers more options for securing data.
This week, the company released the new version of its mobile operating system after months of testing. It's available today on some Pixel, OnePlus, Xiaomi, Oppo and Realme phones. Other manufacturers plan to roll it out on their devices in the coming months.
Many employees use phones for business and personal tasks, making a divide between company and private data critical: Employers want to ensure that workers are not leaking corporate information, while employees are leery of allowing companies access to private data on their phones. The Android 11 release addresses these problems with additional separations between work and personal tasks and more refined IT administrator controls.
Android 11 is not a groundbreaking update to the operating system, independent analyst Eric Klein said. But the new data controls help Google gain some ground on Apple, which has made privacy a central selling point.
"Apple has done a great job [with privacy], and that is one area where they continue to lead the market," he said. "Android had some catching up to do on this front, and they're doing it."
Separating work and personal data
Android has had separate personal and work user profiles since 2014. The latest version makes the difference sharper by adding them to more tasks. For example, users will see different profile tabs when sharing files and changing settings. The work profile can be paused after hours, freeing employees from work notifications after their days have ended.
The work profile provides greater IT control of company-owned devices, while addressing employee privacy. For instance, a phone's always-on VPN might reveal an employee's personal browsing history, so Android 11 provides an IT administrator with the option of setting the VPN for work apps only. Also, the OS will notify users when the IT department grants location access to work apps.
An upcoming update for Google Calendar will let people see personal events on their work calendars to gauge their availability. Google will store those events in the personal profile to hide them from employers.
Control over permissions
The Android 11 release gives tighter rein on app permissions for personal applications. Users can set apps for one-time access to such phone features as the microphone, camera and location. With such a system, an app would have to request and receive permission again the next time it wishes to use those resources.
If an app has gone unused for some time, Android will auto-reset its permissions. That would give users a chance to decide whether an app should continue using phone features.
Yet users may be looking for still more control. Steven Luu, a software engineer who uses a Pixel 4 XL, said he would like an option restricting an app's access to the internet. The constraint would help in preventing malicious apps from secretly downloading malware.
"If you get a sketchy app ... it would be nice to be able to lock away its ability to phone home," he said.
Luu said he was disappointed that Google didn't add more customization features to Android 11. He noted that some finger-swipe gestures could not be changed. Swiping diagonally up from either bottom corner of the screen, for instance, is dedicated only to summoning the Google Assistant.
"I believe customization has been one of the main differentiators of Android, and it feels like Android is moving away from that," he said. On the other hand, Apple has allowed more customization in iOS through widgets.