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It’s a pretty simple question: Do you want a smartphone app to track your digital activity across other apps and websites?
And yet it’s a question most apps have never bothered to ask. As of this week, Apple is changing that.
The iPhone maker’s smartphone software received an update Monday that is now asking users if they want to allow apps to track their digital activity. And while it might seem like a simple pop-up option, it’s a change that has already sent shockwaves through the app economy — including at Facebook and Google, the internet’s two biggest ad businesses.
“What Apple’s doing is both totally revolutionary in shaking up the mobile app ecosystem, and it’s also really normal,” said Gennie Gebhart, a privacy researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit in San Francisco that advocates for privacy online.
The internet’s evolution gave rise to tracking systems that started simply enough — what websites you visited — and evolved into a vast surveillance system in which just about any web activity is often logged, shared and sold. That includes activity on smartphone apps, and most of the time, this happened without tracking systems asking permission.
What will it mean for the smartphone now that apps have to ask? Let’s dive in.
It’s centered around a four-letter acronym: IDFA, the Identifier for Advertisers. Consider it a license plate for your phone, Gebhart said. The IDFA is a string of characters that apps on an iPhone can use to watch certain activity without necessarily knowing a user’s name.
Now, for any app on an iPhone or iPad, Apple is requiring the app developer to ask your permission before using your IDFA. The question pops up for each app — similar to other privacy prompts.
“This is definitely the most aggressive step because this is changing the defaults,” said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and tech policy for Consumer Reports. “That’s what really matters.”
Apple says the change is about transparency, and it has its own acronym for it: App Tracking Transparency, or ATT.
First, make sure your iPhone’s software is updated to iOS 14.5. You can check that by going to the “Settings” app and tapping “General” and then “Software Update.”
Once that’s done, there are two main options. The first comes with the pop-ups. When you’re in some apps, the iPhone will start asking if you want to allow the app to track you. If you say no, the iPhone will make sure that app doesn’t get data based on your IDFA. If you say yes, it will allow the app to collect information about your online habits.
The second option is to turn it off at once for all apps. Go to the “Settings” app again but this time tap “Privacy” followed by “Tracking” and then toggling “Allow Apps to Request to Track” to off. That means apps won’t even be able to ask you to track your activity.
For people who think personalized ads are creepy, this is a way out — at least part of the way. You may see fewer ads that follow you around your phone, or that are based on your activity online or offline.
“This tracking was designed to be unseen and invisible, and now Apple is adding some visibility,” Gebhart said.
Privacy advocates say that some apps hoover up data without needing to, sometimes making money off it. They also argue that less tracking would change the online economy, possibly for the better.
Other than delivering personalized ads or content, the IDFA has no functional purpose, Gebhart said. “This is a feature that was never for users. It’s never worked in their favor,” she said.
Facebook isn’t happy. The company relies on tracking users to serve targeted ads, and this change could mean that’s harder for Facebook, the owner of four top iPhone apps. As recently as Wednesday, Facebook warned investors that Apple’s change would be a “headwind” for its ads business.
The social network has tried to put a positive spin on the situation, arguing that people would rather see personalized ads rather than random ones and that targeted ads benefit small businesses. It has blasted Apple for the design and wording of the pop-ups, and Facebook says it will display its own “educational screen” pop-up to users before presenting Apple’s prompt.
“The fact that Facebook’s panicking is a good sign that it’s probably going to work,” Gebhart said.
Aside from Facebook’s objections, the response from the ad industry hasn’t been much of a freakout. Apple gave the industry many months to prepare for this, and marketers couldn’t exactly come out in direct opposition to transparency. There may have been a sense that a crackdown was unavoidable given regulatory and consumer scrutiny over data generally.
“The way someone’s data was being sliced and diced by companies behind their backs just wasn’t sustainable,” the trade publication Digiday said.
Maybe. That depends in part on how Apple rolls out the feature so that users aren’t seeing a flood of notifications, adding to the pop-ups they already see when using a web browser or in other contexts.
“I’m really worried about notification fatigue,” Gebhart said. “These notifications come up at the exact moment when you’re trying to open an app.”
One early indicator came from AppsFlyer, a data firm that studied about 550 apps that used the Apple notifications early. Its preliminary research found that users opted to allow tracking by IDFA 39 percent of the time, but there was variation among apps, perhaps indicating how much people liked or trusted the brand.
Adweek, a trade publication, reported this week that marketers will take several routes, including preserving the information they already have and spending money to gain information directly from consumers, what’s known as “first-party data.”
Some of China’s biggest tech companies are testing their own tool to bypass Apple’s changes, The Financial Times reported in March.
“Any anti-tracker initiative is going to set off a cat-and-mouse game,” Gebhart said. But, she added, “That’s not a reason to not do this.”
That remains to be seen. Companies such as Facebook have certainly warned that Apple’s changes are a big step away from the ad-supported, often-free internet that has developed over the decades.
But it’s also possible that marketers find that mobile ads are still effective even without the targeting bonus provided by a near-universal IDFA.
If formerly free apps do start charging iPhone users, though, at least one company stands to benefit: Apple, which takes a commission on sales made through its app store.
Not yet, but changes may be coming to Android, the Google-owned operating system for phones made by Google, Samsung and others. Android has a counterpart to Apple’s IDFA, called Advertising ID, and while Android users can reset their identifier or opt out of personalized ads, they don’t get the reminders and prompts that Apple users do.
This month, the European privacy activist Max Schrems filed a complaint over the Android identifier, asking authorities in France to investigate the tracking of users, but any outcome could be a long way away. In the meantime, Google is testing a new way of ad-targeting on web browsers meant to be less invasive.
“To me, a lot of this has a ring of ‘Your move, Google’ to it,” Gebhart said, adding though that she’d be surprised, “pleasantly” so, if Google made a similar move.
David Ingram covers tech for NBC News.
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