Now Google Has a Batterygate of Its Own

Posted on September 17, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 16 Comments

Late last week, Google apologized for inadvertently enabling a battery saver feature on users’ Android handsets. But it never addressed the real questions.

How the frick can Google remotely enable a system setting on users’ phones?

And why did it do so in this specific case?

“Hi all, some of you may have noticed that battery saver turned on automatically today,” a Google post to Reddit explains. “This was an internal experiment to test battery saving features that was mistakenly rolled out to more users than intended. We have now rolled battery saver settings back to default. Please configure to your liking. Sorry for the confusion.”

Battery Saver is a feature that debuted in Android 5 Lollipop. As I wrote back in 2016, Battery Saver automatically kicks in when battery life is low and reduces performance and system and app capabilities in order to preserve that battery life. You can also disable it if you’d like or turn it on manually.

To be fair, Google’s remote triggering of Battery Saver didn’t actually impact the broader Android user base. It was limited to a small group of people running Android 9 Pie, mostly on Pixel devices. (When I heard about this happened, I checked my phone, but it was not remotely triggered.)

No matter. The news that Google could even make such a change to users’ phones has created a new wave of distrust and worries, especially among the privacy-conscious. But as The Verge accurately points out, this capability isn’t really news per se. Both Apple and Google have so-called “triggers” in their mobile platforms by which they can make changes to users’ devices for safety and security reasons. And yes, this includes system settings.

The real issue here is that Google has remained mum since apologizing for making the change. It has not explained why it would even make such a change to a reduced set of users. Is Google quietly experimenting on its own users using public, non-beta versions of its platform?

Hopefully, we’ll find out.


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Comments (16)

16 responses to “Now Google Has a Batterygate of Its Own”

  1. dcdevito

    Yes, I am mostly concerned why they were doing it in the first place. Yes (in response to The Verge's article), we all know each mobile platform company has their own series of triggers and trap doors, but why Battery Saver? Does this have something to do with Pie's new Adaptive Battery feature? I guess that would make sense, and frankly I'm not specifically concerned with Google knowing my battery %, but I now want to know what else they know and how much, and how much they can control. I've said on other posts, no one's a bigger Google fanboy than me (I admit), but this is a bit too much for even me.

  2. sivey42

    My Pixel XL had this happen, but it ALSO got the Night Light enabled from 10pm to 6am - a schedule that I most definitely did not set.

  3. SupaPete

    I feel like this topic is only getting so much buzz because some tech journalists (and i don't see that as a jab to you Paul, i mean all who try to turn this into a hysteria kinda thing) are not as well informed about tech as they should be.

    I mean it should be captain obvious clear that yes of course Google can change settings on your phone.

    Just like Apple can actually also remove apps completely or add ones and also change other settings and software on your iOS phone.

    Of course they can, and both already have done so before.

    The only surprising side to me is that tech journalists are surprised by this like as if all their devices have not been getting auto updates downloading by themselves in some cases installing automatically and all sorts of other things making it super obvious that yes, of course the manufacturer can trigger things on your device, and actually already does do so for many things, quite often.

    Now one can argue about whether one likes or disliked such things in general, that would make sense to have that discussion.

    But to get hung up on the super obvious part that it is done, yeah, that's kinda weird, because things in this vein are constantly done on most platforms/devices nowadays.

    Is it such a different thing they toggle a system setting slider instead of let's say iOS or windows downloading the next full OS update by itself?

  4. curtisspendlove

    I think they already explained it. They just did so in “marketing speak”.

    An internal experiment rolled out to more users than intended.

    This tells me that a human goofed up (either by triggering it incorrectly or perhaps by coding a bug in the trigger system).

    I understand and that this can raise concerns, especially with a company like Google that people are cautious to trust.

    But it I don’t think there is any concern here. Remote triggers are generally good features to have. Usually for security.

    That said I can’t think of many needs for a remote battery saver trigger. But it might just have been a test of “we want to control some security features, what is a harmless test we can add to prove the concept”. It may not even be intended for battery features, but instead to target a different system setting eventually.

    I agree these should typically tested in beta, and it probably was.

    But there are some valid tests in production too. And it could also have been as simple as a badly labeled trigger (they intended to trigger for an internal build or internal group, and mistakenly triggered for a “production” group instead).

    • nbplopes

      In reply to curtisspendlove:

      I agree. There is not much if anything for actual users here for now.

      The title it’s just a Click bait.

      • curtisspendlove

        In reply to nbplopes:

        Yup. In fact I’m guessing it was somehow tied to accounts flagged with a certain condition, such as “people who ran android beta” or whatever. Which could explain why a lot of people in the “tech press” (and their readerships) saw it, etc.

        I'm fairly convinced this was a “feature flag” trigger gone (a little) wrong.

  5. nicholas_kathrein

    I'm not sure why anyone would be alarmed. As almost any modern device now that is connected to the Internet is constantly pinging the OS vendor. Devices by all the big companies such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft all follow direction from the mother-ship and any of these vendors can through a switch to change a setting on your device / pc. If you thought otherwise you might want to get off of connected devices that are basic computers.

    Anyway it happens where you're doing testing and accidentally flip the production service instead of the pilot / test server. Shouldn't happen but humans make mistakes. Why they would test turning on and off battery from the server vs the phone could be as simple as maybe they are trying to do more server side training for battery saving server side where it decides what battery setting to be. Maybe we'll see at the next Pixel announcement.

  6. TomKer

    Now wait a minute. Google didn't just reach out and flip a switch, they had this "test" setting erroneously embedded in the October update that hit Pixels running Pie the evening before we started noticing it. I don't see this as a case of remotely triggering anything, but rather a hard coded screw-up that QA should have cleaned up before the patch was deployed. That something like this has happened opens up concern more about the QA process around their patches than Google practicing (additional) nefarious acts.

    • wright_is

      In reply to TomKer:

      From the vague talk coming from Google, that was my first thought as well, but there is no definite information. Did those affected handsets receive a further update to kill this feature?

      Was the reset per trigger?

      I would like to think it was an update error, but the wording is too vague and Google have been really working hard in the last months to destroy people's trust in them...

  7. MikeGalos

    It should come as no surprise that Google thinks they're the ones who own your phone and should be able to change how it works whenever they want. They have build an entire group of corporations on the premise that their users are just tools to make their real customers (targeted ad buyers) happy and that the users are of no real interest or concern to them.

  8. Sprtfan

    So Apple can do it too so that makes it ok? I'm not really worried about his but seems like an odd defense.

    My wife has had some issues were she says that her notifications and privacy settings get changed. She is convinced now that Google is doing this in the background. The worst thing about this mistake from Google for me is that I now have to talk my wife out of switching back to her old Windows phone. In the end, she might just end up getting an iPhone since she now thinks that Google is messing with her and no logical argument can convince her otherwise.

  9. Minke

    I am not a technical journalist and I am running a plain old Pixel 2 with no unusual settings and it happened to me. I suspect the reason this is alarming to some people is that it fits neatly into the current narrative about evil tech companies spying on us with no moral compass. I am sympathetic to that view as I feel that way some days. The other day I was having problems with my phone service so briefly did some Internet searches on alternatives and now I see a constant stream of ads for phone services, which kicked in nearly instantly after I Googled some of them. However, I also have some esoteric interests that almost never trigger ads because they are so non-mainstream that the companies don't buy ads! In fact, a lot of my interests are like that so I don't feel as bombarded as some others do. To me the disconcerting thing about the battery setting fiasco is the certain knowledge that there will come a day when someone makes a bigger blunder or someone deliberately decides to F up our phones remotely.

  10. Lateef Alabi-Oki

    It's called Firebase Remote Config. Google and developers have been able to remotely change the configuration settings of their apps and services on your devices for years. Among other things, it's used for A/B testing. Much ado about nothing.

  11. dontbe evil

    ROTFL … google quality .. and guess how many other things they can change on your phone


    meanwhile I still get no notifications on this website

  12. RonV42

    How many times has Google updated my chrome or other apps without my permission on Android? I manually update my apps and never want to update the Google ones. But yet every quarter I notice without my permission the "G" app was updated, some strange keyboard update for their Gboard, and others. Google has way too much control and doesn't communicate of what and why. If Paul is upset with how Microsoft communicates he should be more worried of the actions of Google.