Apple's long-awaited "app tracking transparency" tool, which lets users decide whether they agree to their data being tracked across various different apps and websites, will be rolling out in a matter of months.
Coming in early spring as part of a new release of iOS 14, iPadOS14 and tvOS14, the feature will require apps to get users' permission before tracking their data across other companies' apps or websites for advertising purposes. When asked by users not to track their data, apps will also have to refrain from sharing information with data brokers.
Data brokers collect information or buy it from other companies, including social media platforms, and aggregate thousands of pieces of data to create consumer profiles that can be used for targeted advertising. A new privacy report published by Apple mentions one broker that is currently collecting data on 700 million consumers worldwide, building up profiles that include as many as 5,000 characteristics.
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Data brokers are only one part of a web of apps, ad-tech firms, social media companies, websites and others that are interested in collecting vast amounts of information about users across different platforms. According to Apple, the average app has six trackers, which in most cases allow third parties to collect and link data from many different sources.
Even when generating data while using a single app, therefore, users' profiles end up being updated in a number of different databases around the world, often without their knowledge. This, in a nutshell, is why a quick web search for the local playground's opening hours can lead to a week-full of nagging ads about children's toys.
In the upcoming releases of Apple's OS, users will be able to choose whether to allow apps to collect the data they generate in other apps and websites. Under their device's settings, they will be able to see which apps have requested permission to track and make changes as they see fit.
If users select "Ask app not to track", the app developer won't be given access to the device's advertising identifier, which is often used to collect advertising data; and apps that continue to track users that have opted out run the risk of being evicted from the App Store altogether. Apple also confirmed that users will not be required to permit tracking in order to use the app's full capabilities.
The Cupertino giant pitched the app tracking transparency tool at the Apple developer conference last June, with a view of releasing the feature along with the launch of iOS 14 last October. The company eventually decided to delay the tool to give developers more time to make the necessary changes.
A group of digital rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook at the time, expressing their "disappointment" that the anti-tracking feature had been pushed back. The delay, noted the letter, meant that privacy protections wouldn't be available during the 2020 US presidential elections, which came with a heightened risk of personalized political ads.
Privacy experts are now applauding the soon-to-come release of the app tracking transparency tool. Jeff Chester, executive director of the center for digital democracy, said: "Apple's new data privacy tools ensure that people have greater control over their personal information. Data brokers and online advertisers will now have to act more responsibly when dealing with consumers who use third party applications on Apple devices."
The new tool will complement a feature that has already launched in iOS 14 and iPadOS14, which Apple calls the "privacy nutrition label" – an easy-to-view summary of the data that a given app collects, as well as details about how the information is used by developers. Developers who submit a new app, or an update in the Apple App Store, now have to provide information about their privacy practices and how they handle data.
Although Apple prides itself on championing privacy in the big tech industry, the company's announcements haven't been met with unanimous praise. Facebook, for one, has described the company's new privacy policies as potentially harmful against small businesses, while indirectly benefitting Apple itself.
Facebook's vice president of ads and business products Dan Levy recently argued that entrepreneurs rely on advertising to make money, and that small businesses could end up seeing a cut of over 60% of website sales without personalized ads.
Without advertising, developers may also be unable to provide free apps and will have to turn to subscription-based models. Levy said that this will ultimately boost Apple's profits.
In Facebook's latest quarter earnings conference call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg took another hit at the iOS giant, stressing that without targeted ads, small businesses won't be able to reach their customers as well as before. "Now Apple may say that they're doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests," said Zuckerberg.
Apple continues to brand itself as an industry leader in privacy protection, and highlighted the dozens of technologies that are built into the company's products, such as cookie-blocking or intelligent tracking prevention in Safari, iOS and MacOS.