The major change hitting iPhones within weeks

Despite fierce opposition from Facebook and Google, Apple says it’s close to going live with a new system that will let you stop apps tracking your online and real-life activity without your permission.

Apple says iOS 14.5, which will rollout for iPhones and iPads within weeks, will include its new App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature – which will require apps to ask your permission if they want to track your data across apps or websites owned by other companies. That information is often used to target ads, or is sold to data brokers. It can also be meshed with data about your location and/or your bricks-and-mortar shopping habits to build a detailed profile.

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On average, apps include six “trackers” from other companies, which have the sole purpose of collecting and tracking people and their personal information, Apple says – the better to target online ads.

A rep for the company said such information was often sold to data brokers, who could build up a profile of up to 5000 data points about a person’s demographics, habits and preferences.

The company says most people are unaware of the scope of this “non-consensual tracking” via apps, and has released a new presentation revealing how simply buying an ice cream can be creepy (see A Day in the Life of Your Data: A Father-Daughter Day at the Playground).

Facebook and Google bite back

A recent Forbes report estimated Apple’s toughening of tracking rules could cost Facebook US$8 billion in revenue and Google US$17b over the next 12 months.

Opposition to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) has been duly fierce, ahead of its launch.

Google has argued that many apps already have opt-in provisions for tracking, in keeping with their developer’s own guidelines, and/or local privacy laws.

And Facebook has taken out full-page newspaper ads claiming Apple’s move will hinder millions of small-to-medium businesses’ ability to deliver personalised ads – a financial blow they don’t need during the pandemic. And online the social media giant has created a site that features a parade of small business people criticising Apple’s “forced move.”

Apple counters that it will offer free tools for tracking ad effectiveness without compromising privacy (something that Facebook, in turn, sees as a push to take control of ad tracking). A rep for the company also told the Herald that a similar, earlier move to tighten up the rules around tracking the web, implemented via Apple’s Safari web browser, did not destroy SME advertising – it just made it follow better rules. Lastly, Apple argues that if people are comfortable with tracking, they can still opt in – only now it will be informed consent.

Nevertheless, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has accused Apple of double standards and giving its own apps a free pass.

“Apple may say that they are doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests,” the social network’s boss told analysts on a conference call earlier this year.

Apple’s ATT push companies on the heels of another recent privacy move: requiring app makers to display “nutrition”-style labels on apps in its App Store – designed to reveal at a glance what personal data is collected by any piece of software, and what it does with it.

Zuckerberg said that push would give a market advantage to Apple’s own apps, like iMessage, which come pre-installed with an iPhone or iPad, skirting its labelling and opt-in processes.

A rep for Apple told the Herald: “Like all App Store guidelines, the new requirement for privacy information on the App Store applies equally to all iOS apps, including all Apple apps.

“[While] iOS apps that don’t have dedicated product pages on the App Store will still have the new same privacy information available to users on our website.”

Edwards: A defining moment

On January 29, NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards introduced Apple CEO Tim Cook at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference, run virtually from Brussels.

Cook let rip with a fiery speech (see video above), including the lines: “At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement — the longer the better — and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible.

“Too many are still asking the question, ‘how much can we get away with?,’ when they need to be asking, ‘what are the consequences?’ … What are the consequences of not just tolerating, but rewarding content that undermines public trust in life-saving vaccinations?”

Edwards called Cook’s speech “inspirational” as he threw to a discussion panel of international privacy experts, who broadly shared his positive take on the CEO’s presentation and Apple’s new policies.

Shortly after, Edwards told the Herald: “I think it’s a really significant step – this is one of the defining moments of the digital age. I really think this is true. Apple’s been able to achieve some that policymakers and regulators have not been able to.”

He added: “The spotlight now shines on Google to demand similar standards of transparency for apps in its Play store.”

Enforcement will be the reckoning

It’s easier for Apple to be righteous about tracking and privacy, for the company makes nearly all of its revenue from selling hardware, content and services, while Google and Facebook learn almost entirely on selling ads.

Regardless, Edwards sees the iPhone maker’s policies as transformative.

The Privacy Commissioner did concede, however, that ultimately the effectiveness of ATT and the nutrition label system would come down to enforcement.

Apps that don’t follow the new rules face the possible ultimate sanction of being barred from the App Store. But a rep for Apple indicated it would start with a more softly-softly approach that will see it “enter dialogue” with an offending developer, in the first instance.

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