Google's crackdown on accessibility services could impact your favorite Android apps

If you like Universal Copy, you'll hate this move.

Credit: Michael Kan

One of the best reasons to buy an Android phone is the sheer number of ways you can manipulate it to your liking. Even without rooting, there are hundreds of apps in the Play Store that add, enhance, and tweak functionality to make the Android experience that much better. But a change coming to Google’s Play Store terms could put an end to it.

As first reported by Android Police, Google is preparing to shut down universal access to its accessibility services APIs within the next 30 days. According to letters sent out to a wide range of developers, apps that use accessibility services that are not explicitly being used “to help users with disabilities use Android devices and apps” may be booted from the Play Store unless the functionality is removed or changed. Google adds that “repeated violations of any nature will result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts.”

The impact on you at home: While you might not think this crackdown will impact your Android experience, there’s an extremely good chance that one of your favorite apps uses accessibility services to enhance the experience. For example, LastPass uses accessibility services to automatically fill passwords for saved websites and apps, and Universal Copy uses it to capture text from apps that normally don’t allow it. And there are many, many others.

While this doesn’t necessarily mean that your favorite apps will lose some of their best functionality, it does present some problems. Google offers APIs to replace some of these features (such as the Autofill API in Android 8 Oreo), but there will definitely be an adjustment period. For one, there aren’t many phones that run Oreo, and for another, it means a bunch of work for developers, many of whom have been using accessibility services for years. However, it’s a fact of life. As security ramps up and Google continues to limit what apps can and can’t do, more and more of the the “open” appeal of Android gets chipped away.

Accessible no more

Accessibility services lets developers access core components of the Android system in the name of making a specific feature or function easier for people with disabilities to use. However, many developers take advantage of the powerful API to enhance the functionality of apps that aren't specifically aimed at helping impaired users. For example, developers use the TalkBack screen reader to boost copy-and-paste, rather than specifically help blind users.

A lengthy Reddit thread confirms that Google has sent out numerous letters to developers spelling out the offending service and asking for clarification on how certain features are designed to help disabled users. The developer who started the thread makes a popular app called Status that draws an overlay on top of the stock Android status bar to allow for personalization of the colors, icons, and animations.

The biggest issue here is security. Opening up a powerful API to any developer who wants them presents a huge security risk. While the vast majority of these apps are simply using the API to give users greater functionality, unscrupulous developers could use accessibility services to steal data from users. By shutting down the use of accessibility services to non-accessibility apps, it will make Android a whole lot safer—but perhaps, not as fun.

We shouldn't be too surprised, though. Google has always stated that accessibility services “should only be used to assist users with disabilities in using Android devices and apps,” though it always seemed like Google was giving developers tacit approval to incorporate the API into general apps (and its constant approval of said apps clearly supports this theory). But this new crackdown means that the floodgates are being slammed shut.

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Michael Simon

Michael Simon

PC World (US online)
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