Google drastically reduced which directories apps can access on your phone on Android 11 as part of its new Scoped Storage, which is a change for the better regarding privacy. However, the new system is problematic for some advanced applications like file managers. When they target the latest version of Android, they can't access all of your phone's internal storage, making them useless for the purpose they were built for. To prevent tons of broken apps, Google has begun emailing developers with apps that require access to device storage, telling them that they'll soon be able to request access to all files via a new permission.
The emails were first spotted by XDA. The permission in question is called All Files Access or MANAGE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE and was introduced back when Android 11 first launched, but Google hindered third-party developers from using it in the beginning. The company first wanted to set up a process to prevent devs from abusing the permission. The emails to the developers and a new support page show that Google is finally opening an application process for that, allowing developers to ask for exemption based on what their apps are primarily build to achieve. Eligible applications include file managers, backup and restore apps, anti-virus services, document management apps, on-device search, encryption, and phone transfer services.
Currently, these apps can only work around the new limitations by targeting Android 10, not Android 11. But that will only be a viable option until May 5, which is when all of these apps will have to target Android 11 — as spelled out in the email Google is sending out. We previously assumed that Google would set a November deadline, but it seems like the company decided to move up the date to May for reasons unknown. With this short notice, many developers will be scrambling to meet the required code changes and file the declaration.
The company is under a lot of pressure to nail its permission process this time around, as it messed up these kinds of exemptions in the past. It broke many legitimate apps with a similar policy change around SMS and call permissions back in 2018. With the short May notice for the Scoped Storage exemptions, Google seems on track to repeat some of these mistakes yet again, though.
At least one thing is for sure: The impending new ruling will purge many bad actors that use the permission to spy on you or to grab your data, as Google has to curate which apps will receive the exemption and which won't.
Here's the email developers are receiving in verbatim, as found on Reddit:
Starting May 5th, you must let us know why your app requires broad storage access
We've detected that your app contains the requestLegacyExternalStorageflag in the manifest file of 1 or more of your app bundles or APKs.
Developers with apps on devices running Android 11+ must use Scoped Storage to give users better access control over their device storage. To release your app on Android 11 or newer after May 5th, you must either:
Update your app to use more privacy friendly best practices, such as the Storage Access Framework or Media Store API
Update your app to declare the All files access (MANAGE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE) permission in the manifest file, and complete the All files access permission declaration in Play Console from May 5th
Remove the All files access permission from your app entirely
For apps targeting Android 11, the requestLegacyExternalStorageflag will be ignored. You must use the All files access permission to retain broad access.
Apps requesting access to the All files access permission without a permitted use will be removed from Google Play, and you won't be able to publish updates.