Apple Debuts App Tracking Transparency with Its iOS Update

Apple released an iPhone software update, iOS 14.5, that includes the privacy tool App Tracking Transparency, intended to give users more control over how their data is shared. Now, when an app wants to share information about a user’s activities, a window will pop up asking for permission to do so. Privacy advocates are rejoicing, but many digital advertisers are declaring the tool harmful to small businesses. Facebook is chief among them, although the privacy setting is also likely to hurt its business as well.

The New York Times reports that, “if we choose not to let Facebook track us, it will be harder for the company to see what we are shopping for or doing inside other apps, which will make it more difficult for brands to target us with ads.”

At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, activism director Gennie Gebhart said, “this is a huge step in the right direction, if only because it’s making Facebook sweat.” But she and others said Apple’s move “might not be enough to put an end to shady tracking on iPhones … [but] could simply push developers and ad-technology firms to find loopholes so they can continue tracking people in different ways.”

NYT states that when the user chooses not to be tracked, Apple disables the app from using an Apple device identifier but, it adds, “ad-tech companies already have many ways to follow us beyond Apple’s device identifier,” including a method called fingerprinting. Privacy researchers say “it’s difficult for Apple to block all tracking and fingerprinting happening on iPhones … [which] would require knowing about or predicting every new tracking method that an ad-tech firm comes up with.”

But the privacy feature will allow Apple to ban apps that keep tracking us after we’ve told them not to, and research scientist Stephanie Nguyen pointed out the new “pop-up window also makes the privacy control far easier for people to discover.” NYT adds that, “as of this week, all apps with tracking behavior must include the App Tracking Transparency pop-up in their next software updates.”

CNN reports Apple noted that, although data can help such features as maps or tagging photos, “some apps have more trackers embedded in them than they need.” “They collect thousands of pieces of information about you to create a digital profile that they sell to others,” said Apple. “These third parties use your profile to target you with ads, and they can also use it to predict and influence your behaviors and decisions. This has been happening without your knowledge or permission. Your information is for sale. You have become the product.”

According to data experts, “large companies like Facebook and other well-known brands will have to work to navigate the changes, but it’s the small to medium-sized businesses that may not have certain resources, such as dedicated analytics teams and engineers, that could struggle more to reach potential customers.”

Gartner senior director analyst Eric Schmitt noted that, “many small businesses take advantage of data sharing to target and measure ads on Facebook and Instagram … it is fair to say that the benefits of digital advertising to some of these businesses will decline.”

Apple’s Privacy Changes Are Poised to Boost Its Ad Products, The Wall Street Journal, 4/27/21

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