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Scoped Storage Explained

What is Scoped Storage?

Securing data as well as your privacy seems to be a theme with the upcoming release (as of writing this) of Android 10. Restricting your location data is one way Google is doing this and securing your stored data is another. The company is calling this Scoped Storage and this is what will be changing in the future.

Many people may describe Android as its own Linux distribution and while that is technically correct (since it uses a Linux kernel as its base), it is a considered a niche distro. The OS is made to run on smartphones (and tablets) so the software is built around this very specific consumer product.

This results in Android handling certain things differently.

For security reasons, Android leverages the Linux user-based protection to identify and isolate app resources. So instead of you having one user ID (UID) for the platform and have apps installed on that UID, Android actually assigns a unique UID to each Android application and runs it in its own process.

It’s these small but very distinct changes that make Android different from Linux. Again, this is done for security reasons and that is Google’s strategy when it comes to Scoped Storage as well.

How Was Data Handled Before Scoped Storage?

Android used to be very free with the storage data that installed applications could have access to. Before Android 4.4 KitKat, it was assumed that if you installed an application then you trusted it enough to access the data saved on your internal storage. Sadly, that isn’t a secure way of doing it and it puts a lot of responsibility on the user.

Whether the user should have that much responsibility for a smartphone is up for another debate. Instead, we’ll focus on how things began to change as KitKat started to prevent access to files that it did not create itself. By the time Android 5.1 Lollipop was released the Storage Access Framework had been implemented.

This framework solved the complaints users were having by allowing apps to request access to the data of another application. By making apps use the API it allowed for better execution of what would be considered public data and private data. Things were as free flowing as before but it did tighten up security.

Scoped Storage is taking things a step further which should make your data more restrictive and more easy to access at the same time.

What is Changing with Storage in Android 10?

Last month when Google first released the Android Q beta they also published a blog post of some changes they wanted to highlight. Scoped Storage is big enough of a change to be included and it is described as a way to “ensure transparency, give users control, and secure personal data.”

This is when we first learned about the feature and began noticing how it can impact applications many of us use every day. A file explorer is a good example, but users will notice changes with any app that wants to access stored data.

A great example of how things are changing with the update to Android 10 and Scoped Storage is a voice recorder application. As it is right now (with Android 9 as the latest release), all applications need to be granted permission to read or write data to your internal storage.

So if you were to install a voice recorder application then you will eventually see a prompt for this app to write voice recording data to your internal storage. Apps will still be able to write data to your internal storage with Scoped Storage, but it will go in a newly created folder that will be ‘owned’ by that application.

So No More Storage Permission Prompts?

Yes and no. So before, you might have received the permission prompt the moment you went to recording audio with the application. With Scoped Storage in place, a compatible application will automatically have access to that folder that it created and ‘owns’ so there isn’t a need to grant it storage permissions.

This folder is sandboxed from other applications so the data is not accessible by other apps without user consent. As you can see, we’re still using the same system that we’ve had in place since Lollipop except this implementation is mandatory thanks to the subtle tweaks.

Scoped Storage Restrictions

Is Scoped Storage Too Restrictive?

You may see a lot of developers, or even regular users, feel that this method is more restrictive than it should be. I see this change impacting different segments of the community differently. Enthusiasts will dislike it because they may end up needing to jump more hurdles than before to use certain apps.

The average user may find that their favorite file manager application behaves differently. Depending on the function of an application, the average user may or may not feel the effect of this change. I know Google wants to minimize that as much as possible and that is why the rollout is being stretched across two updates.

However, the average user shouldn’t notice much with this new change. Sure, they may see UI prompts for permission requests at different times but the apps should behave the same in most situations. Google has even gone as far as to create “shared” folders for apps to store common files in.

These are categorized as audio, photo, and video collections which will be accessible via apps using new runtime permissions. These are for files that apps create which the developer wants to stay on the device after the application has been uninstalled. Miscellaneous files will need to use the system file picker that we’re already used to.

Should You Avoid Updating to Android 10?

Granted, we are seeing some apps having issues with this new change, Google is doing the smart thing and helping both users and developers ease into this new system. I spoke about how Scoped Storage is being rolled out across two updates. The features will be in place with the release of Android 10.

However, as of right now we are told that apps do not have to abide by these new changes. It won’t be until the release of Android 11 that we see these changes made mandatory. This is actually great because it gives users the ability to see some apps utilize the new feature while giving developers enough time to transition.

However, I will say that anything mentioned here could change before the release of Android 10. Google has already changed their mind and stretched the rollout across two updates. They could end up delaying this across a third update, or not prevent legacy apps from using the legacy system.

There’s a lot that could happen between now and the release of Android 10 (let alone Android 11). So we’ll play this by ear. However, it looks like Scoped Storage is going to be a good change for the majority of the Android users base. We’ll just have to see how outreaching the changes are to niche apps.


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