by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
The new version of Apple’s iOS operating system for iPhones and iPad has a feature that requires users to opt-in before an app on your device can track you across other apps
and websites. When you first open an app that may track you, you’re presented with a question as to whether you want to allow that app to track you. If you select “ask app not to track,” Apple disables the app’s ability to use the Apple device identifier code (a series of number and letters that uniquely but anonymously identifies your device). Apple also notifies the app developer of your choice. You can avoid these notifications and turn off tracking for all you apps by going to Settings, Privacy, Tracking.
What’s significant about this new feature is that it’s opt-in vs. opt-out. While there are many ways to opt out of tracking, people are less likely to go out of their way to opt out compared with simply deciding not to opt-in.
Activity tracking has been a constant feature on the web and on apps for years. If you’ve ever browsed a company’s website looking for a product and later saw an ad (or likely multiple ads) for that product or one like it on another site or app, it’s because the app or site shared your information, most likely using a third party ad-tech tracking company that embeds tracking technology inside that app and then sells that information to other companies, which results in your seeing ads tailored around your behavior.
How you feel about this technology is up to you. Personally, I mostly find it tiresome, because it’s common for me to see ads for products I’ve already bought. For example, a few weeks ago I bought an air fryer, but before I settled on one, I looked at several products on sites and apps from Amazon and other companies as well as several reviews. Based on the tracking, I started seeing ads about air fryers. I still see those ads even though I already bought one.
It’s easy to see why many people consider this type of tracking to be intrusive, annoying and creepy, but there is a case to be made that it’s also useful. Some people prefer seeing ads for products that interest them. If you’re a car buff, you might enjoy car commercials or at least prefer them to random ads from products that don’t interest you at all. For example, I wish there were a way to opt out of medical ads on TV. Most of them are for drugs I’m very unlikely to ever need and some of them make me wonder if I may someday need those drugs, which adds to my health anxiety. With Apple’s new feature, you can opt-in to allow for such tracking if that’s what you want, though I suspect most people will opt-out.
Without any form of tracking, websites (along with TV stations) could still target ads based on the demographics of their audience. One reason I see a lot of medical ads on TV is because I watch a lot of news programs where advertisers know they are reaching an older and therefore more medically vulnerable audience. I once interviewed the CEO of a company that makes devices to track heart health who somewhat jokingly admitted he advertised on Fox News and MSNBC to reach “angry right-wing and left-wing old people” who are more likely to need his products. But, of course, there are many people who watch those channels who have no need or interest in his products, which is why it’s much more efficient to advertise based on tracking technology where you know something about a user’s search history, shopping habits and interests.
In a video (tinyurl.com/transpvideo) to promote the new app transparency feature, Apple says it now gives you “a choice on how apps use and share your data, data like your age, location, health information, spending habits, and your browsing history” as well as mapping your runs, tagging your photos, or tracking your location, “so a nearby store can offer discounts.” It goes on to say that “some apps have trackers embedded in them that are taking more data than they need (and) sharing it with third parties like advertisers and data brokers,” which they can use to predict and influence your behaviors and decisions.” In addition to encouraging, you to buy products, this technology can also be used to try to influence your political views.
As you might expect, Facebook is not happy about this development, which has caused a bit of a rift between the two companies. On a web page aimed at small businesses, Facebook claims that “Apple’s policy could limit your ability to use your own data to show personalized ads to people who are likely to be interested in your business.” The company said that “Now that 44% of small businesses are turning to personalized ads to adapt to the outbreak of COVID-19, this update will be especially hurtful to small businesses in already challenging times.” And, while it may appear noble that this $873 billion tech-giant is looking out for mom-and-pop businesses, it’s obvious that Facebook itself has a lot to lose if millions of iPhone users, as expected, don’t opt-in to this tracking technology. As you also might expect, Google is very unlikely to offer a nearly identical version of this feature though. According to Bloomberg, there are internal Google discussions on “how it can limit data collection and cross-app tracking on the Android operating system in a way that is less stringent than Apple’s solution.”
Disclosure: My non-profit internet safety organization, ConnectSafely.org, receives financial support from Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other companies (not Apple) but, on this point, I agree with Apple. Technology users deserve full disclosure and the ability to decide whether they wish to be tracked.