Apple’s iOS 14.5 was released yesterday, and the software update institutes a new privacy measure that requires apps ask for permission to track users as they move across the web. Guidelines created by the company suggest it knows that developers will try to circumvent the policy, and it’s not going to let that fly.
Privacy wall — Called App Tracking Transparency, the new privacy feature has been criticized — and feared — by companies that make money from advertising, most notably Facebook but also others like ESPN.
Tracking uses a device’s unique identifier to watch as a user moves between apps. Having access to that identifier is crucial in the world of online advertising, as a brand can see whether or not Sally from Michigan saw its ad on Facebook and then went on to buy something. Without tracking, prices for ads could be forced downward.
Alongside the release of iOS 14.5, Apple updated its Human Interface Guidelines with a section that outlines the design policies apps must follow when they request permission to track a user. In particular, apps cannot incentivize users to allow tracking, such as by limiting app functionality until they grant permission. Everyone needs to get the same experience. Apps also cannot feature visual tricks that get a user’s permission. They are allowed, however, to describe in the permission prompt why tracking is needed.
Philosophical debate — The move by Apple has been well received by the general public, which distrusts companies like Facebook that make it hard to understand what personal information is being collected on them. But it also highlights Apple’s control over independent developers, who must follow its rules or be kicked off the second largest smartphone operating system.
There are reasonable arguments in favor of tracking. People enjoy access to free apps like Gmail and Instagram because they’re supported by advertising. The complicated nature of the behavior is what people dislike, though many would surely be willing to give up some information in exchange for free access to TikTok.
In creating App Tracking Transparency, Apple wants to protect its customers and make the exchange of data more consensual. But the nature of its implementation could be seen as anticompetitive because the company is making it harder for ad-based services to compete with its own that are supported by sales of hardware and subscription services. In iOS 14.5, all tracking is disabled by default and requires an opt-in, a very heavy handed move.
Mark Zuckerberg has argued that Apple is creating a two-tiered system in which only the affluent can get access to secure services like FaceTime and iMessage. It’s easy to hate Zuckerberg, but everyone makes a good point every now and then.