Android phones are not as secure as they should be, believes Sergey Lossev, head of product, Opera Max, Opera Software. And not one to beat around the bush, Lossev talks about the problems that currently plague most Android phones, and the importance of a seamless internet usage experience as well as privacy are critical. This is where Opera’s Max app for Android phones becomes relevant. So far, it was known as a data-saving app—designed to compress the data being sent over your 3G/4G internet connection, and allow you to get more mileage from your data billing plan. Now, the company has added a privacy protection layer to the Max as well, which detects and automatically blocks data tracking and lets the users know about the potential threats.
In an interview with Mint, Lossev talks about the vision with Opera Max, why privacy features were important, their partnership with Samsung and other Indian phone makers and Opera’s vision for a secure Android smartphone. Edited excerpts.
What are the big problems Android phones struggle with?
There are two huge problems with Android at the moment. And specifically to India, since this is the largest and fastest growing market that all the companies are falling over themselves to capture the hearts and minds of users in India. First is the affordability of mobile data and data plans. The second, and at Opera we think that quality internet experience regardless of cost, should come with a certain level of privacy.
As it turns out, these problems are solved. But they are solved at a price point that is available to basically 1% of users. There are some Android OS data saving services and some privacy services—for example, Google has shown on Android Nougat that they have a data saver button. That is great, but according to their own numbers, only a fraction of the phones use this Android version. As a general user, you wouldn’t even know which device to buy. Everyone is saying they have the latest phone, but does it have the latest software?
It is a good step, but don’t think it is quite enough. On the privacy side, again, Google has stepped up and shown this great service called Wi-Fi Assistant, which uses a VPN made by Google to provide a level of protection on open Wi-Fi’s such as at railway stations or coffee shops. But this is only available on made by Google devices, such as the Pixel phones (Rs57,000 onwards). Again, this feature is not accessible for many users, because of the price.
Is there another way?
We wanted to give the users a way to lower the cost of internet at scale, with tens of millions of users, and also offer free privacy. We wanted to take a typically $50 per year type of service and give it to users for free. This is our ‘Robin Hood of Android’ philosophy of taking expensive high-end software features, and democratizing them for mass access.
Are phone makers interested?
For the Robin Hood philosophy to work, we needed partners. About five weeks ago, we introduced an update to Samsung’s cornerstone J-series phones. It has a feature called S-Secure, and it has a privacy mode now powered by Opera. This makes these phones the most private Android phones that money can buy, and that includes the Pixel phones. So, you are now getting features similar to a $650 device, on a phone that may be priced between $150-$250.
But, there are many data manager apps that users can download and use?
The Opera Max is the most advanced data management and data savings app. It does video, image, web and music savings. Some other competitors have tried to do that, but they don’t have that full mix. And this applies to all apps and web browsers. It is very simple to use as well. Even if you turn this off, Max will calculate and tell you how much data you have potentially wasted.
Any apps that Opera Max does not work with, such as Facebook?
Some apps are fully encrypted, and that means we cannot get to the pictures and heavy content to shrink it. Facebook is an example of that. But Instagram, for instance, we can get to all the pictures, or Netflix and YouTube.
Does Opera Max collect and save any user data?
We do not collect user data. Opera Max does not store your messages or your emails or your photos. Frankly, that will be so much data from tens of millions of users, we wouldn’t want to do that! For example, when Instagram photos go through our servers, they get compressed and then they are gone. What we store is data such as are users using privacy mode or savings mode, using it on Wi-Fi or mobile data, basically stuff that can be used to improve the app.
Would you hold Google responsible for the lax Android privacy?
I think there are two sides to that. Android is open, and Google works with many partners, OEM and app developers. There are many layers. Apple does a better job there for sure. But that is only half the story. The other half is that apps send data out into the internet, all the time. And there, Android is better than iOS. That is because Apple doesn’t do anything once the data leaves their device. In fact, they have such a constricted guideline for developers that it is a lot more limited on the types of VPN services or data management services that we can develop for iOS.