Apple’s new iOS update is its most significant privacy update ever

All apps, including Apple’s, have to ask if you want to share your identifier with other apps and data brokers. Developers are able to add their own messaging to the pop-up that can explain why you might want to be tracked.

However, when you turn off the tracking all advertisers will see is a string of zeros – making sure no data is shared from your iPhone or iPad to the rest of the world. Apple argues the App Tracking Transparency gives you “more informed choices” about the apps you use.

This is a big deal right?

In short, yes. This is the first time that a smartphone operating system manufacturer has turned off ad tracking identifiers by default.

But the move does follow the larger trend of making privacy-enhancing technology the regular choice for users. In the last half-decade end-to-end encryption has become the default option for messaging services such as WhatsApp, Signal and iMessage. And web browsers, including Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari, have abandoned the use of third-party cookies – and even Chrome, the world’s biggest browser, is in the process of ditching third-party cookies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, privacy and civil liberties groups have praised Apple’s plans. Jason Kint, the CEO of trade group Digital Content Next, has called the changes “the most significant improvement in digital privacy in the history of the internet”. (Condé Nast, the publisher of WIRED, is a member of Digital Content Next.)

Apple’s privacy shift has been controversial with advertisers. For one, the advertisers and ad platforms alike are concerned that simply don’t know how many people will give their permission to be tracked across apps. This caused Apple to delay the App Tracking Transparency update, which was originally planned to launch in September 2020 with iOS 14 but was delayed to “give developers time to make necessary changes”. (As it was delayed eight privacy organisations wrote to Tim Cook saying they were “disappointed” about the wait.)

No group or company has been more opposed to Apple’s changes than Facebook – one of the biggest advertising firms in the world. The two companies have repeatedly clashed over privacy and online tracking. This year, the feud has become even more heated. Over the last few months, Facebook has splashed out on full-page newspaper adverts saying the changes will hurt small businesses that rely on Facebook’s ability to track people and show them ads based on their interests. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has attacked Apple’s plans, saying they are being made in Apple’s “competitive interests”. Facebook was also reportedly preparing an antitrust lawsuit against Apple that referred to its app tracking policies.

Despite the criticism of Apple, Facebook may not suffer too much from the changes. While it will no longer use the Apple identifier across any of its apps, Zuckerberg says it could make even more money. “It’s possible that we may even be in a stronger position if Apple’s changes encourage more businesses to conduct more commerce on our platforms by making it harder for them to use their data in order to find the customers that would want to use their products outside of our platforms,” Zuckerberg said on Clubhouse in March.

Facebook has not been the only critic of the iOS changes. Both LinkedIn and Google say they will stop using IDFA in their apps. Meanwhile the makers of Snapchat and a number of Chinese app developers have been looking at ways to get around the changes entirely. Apple has already banned other apps trying to track people using different techniques.

But overall, there’s still a huge amount of uncertainty about the impact that Apple’s changes will have. Advertisers are expecting the changes will severely limit how many people they can show personalised ads to. There’s very little data to know how much of a dent the changes will actually cause. One survey of apps testing Apple’s opt-in prompt, from ad tech firm AppsFlyer, found 32 per cent of people allowed apps to track them – gaming apps had the lowest opt-in rates while ‘utilities’ apps had the highest.

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