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Apple to decimate online tracking with new privacy feature

Apple iPhone image
Credit: Pongracz Noemi

Apple believes that privacy is a fundamental human right. Marketing hype or not, there’s no doubt that our online privacy is under threat like never before. Sadly, many of us don’t even know that our activities are being tracked online, or that our data is being bought and sold in ‘ad auctions’ and by data brokers.

The good news is that Apple is taking steps to protect our privacy across its devices. The company’s latest move is to force app publishers to declare when their apps are tracking us. It may surprise some people that an app can track your activities on other apps or websites after you close the original app. Soon, you’ll be asked permission by the app if you want to let this happen.

App-tracking transparency

Apple’s new privacy feature is called ‘app-tracking transparency’ (ATT). It will consist of a mandatory pop-up warning from apps that track, and it will ask for your permission. If you say no, the system will block the app’s access to your IDFA (Identifier For Advertising), which it needs to assign information about you. Next, a ‘policy’ message is sent to the app developer stating that you don’t want to be tracked. There is also a new ATT settings panel on iPads and iPhones where you can manage your app-tracking transparency settings.

App Tracking Transparency will be required for all apps on Apple’s store. If developers do not comply, they risk being removed from the store altogether. It’s still up in the air if this will impact developers and publisher’s means of creating revenue.

App tracking pop-up
A pop-up like this will appear if an app wants to track you.

App tracking is one of many ways that advertisers learn about your interests. This information can be used at ad auctions, where advertisers bid for access to the ad space on your device. The more information available about you, and the more your characteristics align with an advertiser, the more they will have to spend for that ad space.

Also, advertisers learn if their ads have influenced your behaviour using tracking. So, after serving an ad, an advertiser can check if you go to their online or even physical store, for example. Or, if an ad about a new app was displayed, advertisers can track to see if you installed it.

Advertising with privacy in mind

While Apple is helping to stop tracking, at a recent Privacy announcement, the company says it still supports the advertising industry. Apple believes that there are better ways to advertise without compromising privacy. This could be by using the topic of a web page you might be reading to serve a related ad that might be of interest, rather than tracking your activities.

Apple has been working on tools that allow advertisers to measure the impact of their campaigns without tracking users. This includes:

SKAdNetwork

This lets advertisers know how many times an app was installed after ads for it were seen, so advertisers can measure the impact of their ad campaign. However, this information is designed not to share any user or device-level data, so advertisers don’t track users.

Private Click Measurement

This is allows advertisers to measure the impact of ads that lead users to a website while minimizing data collection using on-device processing. After a user clicks on an ad for a product in an app, the web browser itself, using Private Click Measurement, can give advertisers information that a user clicked on their ad. They can then assume that it led to a certain outcome on their website, such as a visit or a purchase. This would all happen without giving them information about who specifically clicked on the ad. Private Click Measurement is designed for apps in iOS and iPadOS 14.5.

Cover of Apple privacy PDF - a day in the life of your data.

Apple says that the new App Tracking Transparency feature will be available on iOS devices “in early autumn”. They’ve also updated their excellent ‘A day in the life of your data’ report to include information about ad auctions and attribution. This is an “…easy-to-understand report detailing how companies track user data across websites and apps”. There’s also information in it about how Apple is developing privacy-preserving ad measurement technologies like SKAdNetwork and Private Click Measurement.

For more information about App Tracking Transparency, check out our report about how Facebook is addressing it here. For more Apple-related news, click here.