Google adds a Restricted Networking Mode in Android 12

It’s not the system-level firewall we’ve been waiting for

With the first Android 12 Developer Preview expected to go live next month, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Google’s next major OS update. Digging through the Android Open Source Project can only reveal so much given that the bulk of Android 12’s codebase isn’t public. Still, we sometimes see evidence for new Android features in AOSP, though they’re often not very exciting. The latest feature we spotted, internally called “restricted networking mode”, sadly does not provide the configurable firewall that we were hoping to see, but it does have some interesting implications.

A handful of commits merged to AOSP describe the new restricted networking mode feature. Google has created a new firewall chain — a set of rules that the Linux iptables utility follows to allow or block network traffic — to support restricted networking mode. When this mode is turned on via a setting, only apps that hold the CONNECTIVITY_USE_RESTRICTED_NETWORKS permission will be allowed to use the network. Since this permission can only be granted to privileged system applications and/or applications signed by the OEM, this means that network access will be blocked for all applications installed by the user. Effectively, this means that you’ll still receive push notifications from apps using Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM), as these notifications are routed through the privileged Google Play Services app that holds the requisite permission, but no other app — excluding a handful of other system apps — can send or receive data in the background.

We don’t quite know where Google will place a toggle for restricted networking mode in Android 12. We know it can be toggled at runtime and programmatically queried via shell command, much like Android’s Data Saver feature, but we don’t know if Google plans to let users make their own allowlist/blocklist of apps. It would be huge if Google added a user-facing settings page to restrict Internet access on a per-app basis so users don’t have to rely on apps like NetGuard that use Android’s VPN API; there’s nothing wrong with the way these apps operate, but there’s little preventing them from being killed by bad OEM software.

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