Apple has begun rejecting apps that ignore its new App Tracking Transparency policy as it moves ahead toward the launch of iOS 14.5.
So, what’s happening?
Reports indicate Apple has started rejecting apps that ignore this new policy, which extends to iPhones, iPads, and tvOS. The policy requires that apps seek express permission to access the advertising identifier (IDFA) of a person’s iPhone in order to track them for ad targeting purposes. The policy also forbids developers from using other methods to track users.
This is set to come into full effect with the introduction of iOS 14.5, which we now expect to arrive next week — with a potential Apple event to follow.
The idea is that app users have the chance to deny permission to track them across other apps and websites. Instead, they are shown a message that asks for permission to do so, states that permitting it may enable a better experience, but still allows them to ask the app not to track them.
Apple is also warning developers that any sneaky attempts to sidestep this policy by hiding or obfuscating such identifiers within apps can lead to the termination of a developer’s account.
A dreadful attack on openness (not really)
Apple critics say the company is breaking the internet by making it harder for advertisers who make online experiences weird and spooky with surveillance advertising. Strangely enough, the biggest critics seem to be the same entities that build their businesses around privacy erosion.
Apple has responded: “What some companies call “personalized experiences” are often veiled attempts to gather as much data as possible about individuals, build extensive profiles on them, and then monetize those profiles.”
French competition regulators are investigating Apple for the move, but have placed no interim measures to prevent it from introducing its App Tracking Transparency framework at this time. They seem to want to ensure the measure is not applied in a preferential (think, “anti-competitive”) way, but this doesn’t seem to be Apple’s intention.
Most Apple apps don’t make use of such information; any that do will make the same request – and honor the user’s decision.
So, why does it matter?
We know smartphones carry a lot of information. The specific kind of information used to fingerprint devices may include which apps are installed, the amount of RAM, the device model, software versions, location, time zone, and even available disk space. It’s data that may seem trivial, but it really isn’t, as it lets app developers track users across sites, apps, and more.
[Also read: Apple wants Safari in iOS to be your private browser]
Indeed, I seem to recall one security breach in which a user’s habits were monitored until a successful, socially engineered “spear phishing” attack led them to a malware-infested site that seemed identical to one they frequently visited. We know Apple users are targets for such attempts.
After all, once data is known, it can be sold, acquired and misused. This information can also be abused in other negative ways. Putting up defenses against such practice is part of Apple’s plan. The company is building a user-centric approach to data privacy. Those Privacy Nutrition Labels at its app stores are designed to put you in control.
What Apple CEO Tim Cook says
Cook has warned that the industry and civil society must take a stand against tools such as app tracking.
At a high-profile speech in 2018, he said: “Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated or crazy.”
Cook has made frequent interventions since that time. During another recent EU speech he described ATT as being about “returning control to users.” He also discussed a recent Apple white paper called, “A Day In the Life of Your Data.” This illustrates the extent to which app-tracking data can be abused with a story concerning a man spending the day at the park with his daughter.
By the end of that day, Apple’s report claims, companies the man knows nothing about may have learned where the family lives, which park they visited, which news websites they read, what products they browsed, purchasing habits and much more. You can read about it here.
“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data, stitched together across dozens of websites and apps, in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it. We’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom,” argued the Apple CEO.
How to use App Tracking Transparency
As well as the message you experience when you install an app, you’ll be able to find which apps have requested permission to track you in Settings on your iPhone. (You will also be able to change the settings for each app there.)
And you can toggle the “Allow apps to request to track” setting to off, so apps can’t even request permission to track you.