App Tracking Transparency – What It Is And Why Facebook Would Rather That It Didn’t Exist

iOS 14.5 was released yesterday and brought a brand new feature that purports to protect your privacy. It’s called App Tracking Transparency. The feature was announced a year ago, but Apple is now starting to make it mandatory that apps adhere to this new feature by displaying prompts if they track you. Let’s dig into that for a second.

Apple has a feature called IDFA or Identifier for Advertisers which is a unique identifier for iOS devices and is used to target and measure the effectiveness of advertising on a user level across mobile devices. This can be used to track your activities inside an app or beyond. And this data can be sold to third parties. So because Apple markets itself as a privacy focused company, Apple last year revealed new features of iOS 14 which included large changes to privacy management. Specifically Apple has announced that it will give users the ability to choose to block the sharing of this unique identifier at the App level. Previously, consumers had to opt-out. Now when a user installs or updates an app, a prompt will appear alerting the user to opt-in or opt-out of the sharing of this information. For people who choose to opt-out, it doesn’t mean you will no longer see ads, it just means the ads you will see will just not be personalized to you and potentially irrelevant. Now to be clear this isn’t a new feature as such. Limited Ad Tracking (LAT) has been a feature on iOS devices for years, albeit buried in the settings of iOS. What this new privacy prompt does is aligns this to the previous privacy initiatives Apple already put in place on its Safari browser, where it restricts third party cookies and limits the use of first-party cookies.

Facebook is so freaked out by these changes took out ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post declaring that it’s “standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation in response dismissed the campaign as “a laughable attempt from Facebook to distract you from its poor track record of anticompetitive behavior and privacy issues as it tries to derail pro-privacy changes from Apple that are bad for Facebook’s business.” The reason why Facebook is so freaked by this is that they are afraid that if you give consumers the choice of whether they want to be tracked all over the place, most will say no. And they’re likely right about that. Currently, about 70% of iOS users share their IDFA with app publishers. And after this change it’s estimated that this number will drop to 10% to 15%. Which means that if you’re Facebook, and your entire revenue model is based on making sure consumers share as much information about themselves as possible, this will freak you out because you’re about to lose a lot of cash. Here’s my view on this. As frequent readers of this blog will know, I am no fan of Facebook. And when it comes to this issue, they’re on the wrong side of it as consumers care about privacy and are sick of being tracked all over Hell’s half acre.

Now if you don’t want to be tracked, you have a couple of choices. If you head over to Settings –> Privacy –> Tracking you will see this screen:

If you turn this off, no app will be allowed to track you in any widespread and systematic way. That’s the way I have my iPhone set up. And as I said earlier, you will receive less relevant ads as opposed to highly targeted ads. Now if you leave this setting the way it is in the picture above, you will get a prompt from apps that want to track you across websites and apps asking if you want to allow this or not. Now there may be some apps that you may want to allow this behavior, and others that you may not want to allow this behavior. The choice is yours and that’s the point of this feature. This feature puts you in control of how your personal information is used by third parties. Even if they don’t like that fact that you are in control.

Now it has come to light that some are already looking to get around this any way they can, and Apple is strongly suggesting that they don’t do that or bad things will happen to them. So you can expect a game of cat and mouse to ensue. And the odds are that Apple will likely win that game. On top of that, to make sure that app makers don’t encourage users to allow app tracking, Apple updated its Human Interface Guidelines with a new section titled “Accessing User Data.” In this section, offering a mix of new and previously known information, Apple outlines the design policies that all apps must follow when they attempt to ask a user for their permission to access personal data, device capabilities such as microphone and camera, and consent to track them across apps and websites. But they also added this:

Don’t offer incentives for granting the request. You can’t offer people compensation for granting their permission, and you can’t withhold functionality or content or make your app unusable until people allow you to track them.

Don’t display a custom message that mirrors the functionality of the system alert. In particular, don’t create a button title that uses “Allow” or similar terms, because people don’t allow anything in a pre-alert screen.

Don’t show an image of the standard alert and modify it in any way.

Don’t draw a visual cue that draws people’s attention to the system alert’s Allow button.

And:

If you display a custom screen that precedes a privacy-related permission request, it must offer only one action, which must display the system alert. Use a word like “Continue” to title the action; don’t use “Allow” or other terms that might make people think they’re granting their permission or performing other actions within your custom screen.

In other words, Apple is extremely serious about this. And app developers as well as companies like Facebook should take heed. Because App Tracking Transparency is here to stay, and iOS users will benefit from that in the long term.

2 Responses to “App Tracking Transparency – What It Is And Why Facebook Would Rather That It Didn’t Exist”

  1. […] deny any app from tracking and you don’t want to be bothered to click anything to do it, this article can help you with that. Or better yet, #DeleteFacebook and Instagram. That way you don’t have to be worried about […]

  2. […] If you want to learn more about App Tracking Transparency and how you can disable it or enable it on an app by app basis, I wrote an article about it here. […]

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