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After switching from my Nexus S to a Nexus 4 I noticed that my phone was transferring huge amounts of background data. Like 70 MB in 15 minutes. As my data plan only allows 300 MB per month I was not amused. Even when connected to WiFi, it often (but not always!) was uploading tons of data.

According to the "Network Usage" the culprit was "Android OS". So I tried to limit the background data of it only to find that "Android OS" seems to be the only "app" which doesn't offer this option. Great.

Well okay, that's what firewalls apps are made for. I configured AFWall+ but that only cured the symptom not the cause.

Next I redirected the traffic to a laptop with a WiFi card and used the usual tools (tcpdump, wireshark) to analyse the traffic. Result: many many uploads to some Google servers but SSL encrypted so no chance to see the contents.

I kept investigating and found this very interesting article on Android data usage. Apparently Google has began expanding its cloud-based backups of the phone settings so that it now also does backups of the data of some apps. So, I turned off "Back up my settings" in the Privacy settings and whoopiedoo, the sending stopped and the data traffic returned to a normal amount!

There is a post in a Google forum with similar experience: Something within the Android System—maybe Backup—is using up all my data allowance.

I started looking in the Android documentation and found that there is such a thing as "Android Backup Service" which apps can use to backup their application data to the Google cloud: Data Backup

And there is even an CLI utility "bmgr" to interact with the Backup Manager.

But I cannot find any information about how the phone owner can find out which application is backing up which data, or how to influence or stop this. I'd be happy to use the backup service—it saved me a lot of time when switching to my new phone—but the way it is implemented now it's definitely unusable.

After talking to my former coworker and Android expert Izzy who was clueless too, I decided to post this issue here as—like he said—I will find the best experts here. Well, let me know if you have any idea about this. Any hint is welcome!

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Related, if not an outright duplicate: android.stackexchange.com/questions/28100/… –  Al E. Feb 27 '13 at 19:11
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Related yes, but not a duplicate: See the hint that for ciberandy it stopped when disabling Google Backup (in the linked question it was a forgotten SIP account). –  Izzy Feb 27 '13 at 20:16
    
This is a great and thorough answer it could only be improved by making your question a question and answering it below. –  David Silva Smith Mar 1 '13 at 8:03
    
When you say afwall+ cured the symptom and not the cause, do you mean Android os still consumed data but the consumption wasn't recorded/reported by android? –  vikki Aug 19 '13 at 6:04
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Vikki: Afwall+ is a iptables frontend to configure the Android firewall, i.e. he forbade internet access to the Android OS. The cause is still there and unknown then, only the symptoms are gone. @izzy / Andy: you might succeed by using VPN + an SSL mitm proxy on a router of yours to dump & analyze unencrypted traffic. You only need to install a mitm root ca on your android + mitm-proxy or burp proxy: h-online.com/security/news/item/… –  ce4 Oct 3 '13 at 13:06

7 Answers 7

The list of applications with backups as well as how much space each backup uses is on your Google Account Dashboard under "Android Devices".

Unfortunately, there isn't, I believe, any way to control it other than turning it on or off entirely.

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Nope, all I can see there behind the link "Mehr gespeicherte Daten zu diesem Gerät" is the IMEI and date of last backup. Can you really see more than that? –  ciberandy Feb 28 '13 at 19:01
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@ciberandy yes, when I click 'More data stored about this device' I get a listing of IMEI, last seen, registered date, and then a list of each backed up app, its backup date, and the backup size –  derobert Feb 28 '13 at 19:04
    
You are right, after reactivating the cloud backup I just had to wait a day for this information to appear in the dashboard. –  ciberandy Mar 4 '13 at 12:06
    
Several days later, "Android OS" has uploaded 178 MB but the dashboard only shows: Android Wallpaper 05.03.2013 10:52 6,6 MB Android System Settings 05.03.2013 02:16 3,61 KB Android Market 03.03.2013 13:27 16 B AndroRadio 03.03.2013 13:27 8 B So, that's wrong AND not useful. sigh –  ciberandy Mar 5 '13 at 10:48
    
@ciberandy indeed, that isn't very useful. You could probably connect the phone to a computer, enable USB debugging, then watch logcat to see what its doing. Well, grep through logcat, it'll spew a lot of lines. Might be useful for a bug report. –  derobert Mar 5 '13 at 19:01

Quite certain that this is a bug in Nexus 4. Ended up using close to 100 MB for Android OS last month and my current plan is only for 350 MB.

Turning off 'Google backup' did not really have much of an impact as indicated in many forums.

I did notice that 'Android OS' is active only when connected to my mobile network and not when connected to Wifi.

The issue is severe only when connected to my mobile network with "restrict background data " turned ON. I have used the phone for couple of days with background data unrestricted and Android OS consumed limited data.. less than 1 MB.

now, I restrict data based on individual apps while on mobile networks and this seems to work fine.

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That sounds interesting. I found that turning "restrict background data" on/off didn't have any influence. But I didn't experiment too much with it as there is no "local override" for "Android OS" - I still hate Google for that! I eventually started using "AFWall+" to set necessary restrictions and save on my data plan. –  ciberandy Jul 15 '13 at 11:21

It seems that Google doesn't allow us more insight and no way to influence the backed up data.

It's true that the Google Dashboard shows a little more detail about the saved data. But it takes a day or two for the information to appear, and it's definitely not complete.

I reactivated the cloud backup feature about a week ago, it has uploaded 178 MB of data, but the dashboard shows just this:

Android Wallpaper 05.03.2013 10:52 6,6 MB
Android System Settings 05.03.2013 02:16 3,61 KB
Android Market 03.03.2013 13:27 16 B
AndroRadio 03.03.2013 13:27 8 B

That's wrong AND not useful. sigh

data usage since reactivating Googles backupmanager

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You're not doing something like automatically changing the wallpaper every 5 minutes, are you? –  derobert Mar 5 '13 at 19:02
    
Actually I do. "tasker" changes the wallpaper according to where I am. But that happens only 2-3 times a day. –  ciberandy Mar 8 '13 at 17:37
    
@derobert is that a bad thing? I change mine every 30, minutes, can that cause this problem too? –  Goodwine Sep 1 '13 at 5:19
    
@Goodwine I doubt it's a problem unless it's using too much data. –  derobert Sep 1 '13 at 9:00
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That could in fact explain the differences then: The Dashboard shows the amount of data stored (not transferred). So if the Wallpaper app uploads the new background image every time it's changed... You get the idea. In that case: restricting background data for "Android OS" might help (and make backups happen on WiFi only). –  Izzy Jul 6 at 14:10

I have a similar problem and checking on the Dashboard under the Android Devices (as suggested by derobert) I see that I have:

Android Wallpaper
Backup date: 5 Jul 2014 22:33
Backup size: 5.66 MB

I read that ciberandy has similar values so maybe the problem is related to an application I'm using to change my wallpaper every hour: Zedge.

Mendel too reported the wallpaper changing as a possible cause.

So the possible solution, ATM, are:

  • change the wallpaper less frequently / not automatically;
  • disable the "backup my data" setting under settings > backup & restore
  • use a live wallpaper that does that (suggested in the comments by Dan Hulme)
  • restrict background data (from data usage menu) (suggested in the comments by Izzy)

The last option (restrict background data) is unfortunately not available for the single "Android OS" item and on my phone is activating a permanent (annoying!) notification in the notification drawer.

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Hello, my answer is indeed a very likely solution to the problem (solution = disable any app that does change your wallpaper automatically every X hours). I'd have added a comment instead but don't have enough reputation. Please let me know if I should open a new question to gather feedback from other users on wether they are or not using apps like Zedge while having a similar problem. I'm going to update my answer in a few days if that solves the problem to me. –  Giovanni Jul 6 at 15:55
    
By the way, it looks like yesterday I missed mendel's answer that is suggesting the same solution. So yes I think that the wallpaper changes are the cause of the problem, at least in my case ;) –  Giovanni Jul 6 at 16:10
    
After your edit, it looks fine (must have escaped me before, sorry for that). Maybe you want to include a third solution: restrict background data to "Android OS". This would disable backups while on mobile data – but still have them enabled while on WiFi. So they no longer affect your mobile data plan, but you don't have to disable those backups altogether. After that, we might clean up our comments here ;) –  Izzy Jul 6 at 22:34
    
Alternatively, you could use a "live wallpaper" app to have a changing wallpaper, instead of an app that just changes the wallpaper every so often. That way there won't be changes to back up every hour. –  Dan Hulme Jul 7 at 8:27
    
Hello Izzy, no worries... I think you were right and my first message probably looked a little bit too much as a forum post despite I tried to write it properly :p Anyway, thanks for your tips; I'm going update my answer. –  Giovanni Jul 13 at 12:54

I would propose to disable the Android built-in Google Cloud Backup in the settings and use another app to backup your phone.

For example, Carbon supports backing up apps online to different cloud storage providers, and allows to restrict backups to times when you're connected with a Wifi network. Carbon also has the advantage that it can backup apps that are not backed up by Google Cloud Backup.

TitaniumBackup also supports backing up your data online, but requires root.

Both apps also support that they only back-up when your phone is connected to a charger, so that they don't suck your battery empty when you need it for other purposes.

The disadvantage of this solution would be that they both only support scheduled backups, so if you back-up only once a week, you might lose a week of your backed up data if you lose or destroy your phone just before the backup would run. However, I don't know exactly which schedule is used by the Google Backup solution, so this could suffer a similar problem.

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Actually I do use TitaniumBackup. This question is more of a technical kind though. And I'm thinking about the tons of android users who have no idea how to turn off the Google Cloud Backup. –  ciberandy Mar 5 '13 at 18:32

I don't know if this answers the original question, but I think this will explain data usage at least in some cases.

I was having issues with excessive usage by the Android OS and I have discovered that on my phone (Sprint GS3 running Android 4.1.2) manually changing the wallpaper causes the android system to upload aprox 15MB of data (on one occasion it uploaded close to 60MB but I have been unable to duplicate that), so if you have an app changing the wallpaper several times a day that could explain Android OS data usage - at least in some cases.

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Android OS also includes the YouTube data or any video data which you have viewed online using browser/YouTube. You must have watched equally that much amount of videos online from your device. When you browse in the YouTube app or browser only browsing data is recorded by respective apps the actual data streamed for video is recorded under Android OS

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Source? I don't think this is correct. –  Mr. Buster Nov 18 '13 at 20:58

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