If you’re tired of ad tracking/tracking, and its mostly opaque nature that makes you feel like you have little control, the latest iOS 14.5 update developed by Apple promises to give you back control over ad tracking. With the launch of iOS 14.5 on April 26, 2021, all of your apps will have to ask you for permission in a pop-up, “Do you want to allow this app to track your activity on other companies’ apps and websites?” And of course, it will be possible to give a negative answer.
Apple wants to give its users a choice
Many of the big user privacy crises that have occurred in recent years are not due to breaches or non-compliance, but rather to all the opaque practices and rules about how companies share user data, and track those users across services to do targeted advertising. Marketers assign an ID to your device, then monitor your behavior on the web and in using apps on different platforms to generate composite profiles of information, both demographic, but also about shopping habits and other types of events. Apple has already taken a firm stance in the fight against ad tracking in its Safari browser, and this iOS update now takes the battle to mobile. While this step may seem relatively innocuous to iPhone users, it is deeply controversial with companies whose vast majority of revenue is based on advertising, like Facebook.
For Jason Kint, CEO of digital publishing company Digital Content Next, this is an important and impactful move, as the digital ad industry has been built primarily on micro-targeting audiences. Facebook, for example, has code embedded in millions of apps to collect personal data, and offer perfectly targeted, tailored ads, and Apple’s initiative makes that whole strategy obsolete.
iOS has already offered users the ability to completely disable the identifier sharing system for advertisers, by removing the unique identifier on your phone, known as the IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers), that iOS gives developers for in-app and cross-service tracking. The new requirements in iOS 14.5 force all apps to ask users individually via Apple’s App Tracking Transparency framework, so users have more control over privacy settings. This allows you to grant permission for certain apps to track your data if, for example, you prefer to see personalized ads on a particular service.
Katie Skinner, Apple’s privacy manager for user software, said at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June that tracking should always be transparent and under the control of users. She added that in the future, App Store policy will require apps to ask permission before tracking consumers on apps and websites owned by other companies.
The new iOS pop-ups may include a short message explaining why a developer wants users to enable tracking, which essentially consists of a presentation of potential benefits. And these pop-ups won’t appear if a developer is tracking you on its own services, such as Facebook tracking you from its main platforms on Messenger and Instagram. Presumably, platforms owned by the same parent company will or could share data. And this is indeed the biggest problem Apple wants to solve: tracking services where users are not aware of the existing relationships between different services owned by the same entity.
Facebook clearly states its opposition
It is noticeable that Facebook’s name appears frequently when examples about the impact of Apple’s initiative are mentioned. That’s because the world’s largest social network has been very vocal in its opposition to the initiative, and has even been aggressive in its objections to Apple. Facebook CFO Dave Wehner has spoken out about his concerns with the privacy initiatives in the IDFA numerous times since late 2019. And last December, Facebook ran a newspaper ad campaign that read, “We want to stand up to Apple, for all small businesses around the world.” And a website associated with the campaign released by Facebook posted the statement, “Apple’s latest update threatens the personalized ads that millions of small businesses rely on to find and reach customers.”
Facebook also takes issue with Apple’s characterization of this type of personal data sharing. For the U.S. social network, it should indeed not be called “tracking.” In fact, in its support materials for developers and businesses, Facebook refers to it as “what Apple defines as tracking.”
Apple stands tall
Apple CEO Tim Cook responded by tweeting, “We believe users should have a choice about what data is collected about their privacy and how it is used. Facebook can continue to track users on apps and websites as before. But the desire for tracking transparency for apps used in the latest version of iOS 14 will simply require them to ask users for permission first by making a tracking request.”
Apple had originally planned to ask developers to support ATT (Apple Tracking Transparency) for the launch of iOS 14 in September 2020. Instead, the U.S. mobile giant launched an addition to iOS 14 in December 2020, via its Privacy Labels app, which represented a step forward in providing users with accurate information about the level of privacy they could expect from their favorite apps. But with all the backlash from the community, Apple decided to delay the implementation of its ATT, and give developers time to make the necessary changes.
While the changes regarding data tracking in iOS 14.5 are significant, they don’t extend beyond the silo that is iOS: platforms like Android and most browsers on the web will still allow data tracking, much to the satisfaction of marketers. But with its Apple Tracking Transparency, the firm founded by Jobs, Wozniak and Wayne is setting off a potential bomb that could result in far more significant upheaval.