Explainer: iPhone’s new App Tracking Transparency feature

Privacy news
3 mins
Apple iOS Update

The post was originally published on May 4, 2021.

Last week, Apple rolled out a privacy feature for its iOS 14.5 update called App Tracking Transparency, which gives users more control over their privacy. With this feature, a pop-up message appears when a user opens an app that tracks users and lets them opt-out with one tap.

How do you opt-out of tracking on iPhone and iPad apps?

There are several ways that developers can track user activity and share such information with third-party companies. However, Apple’s latest update targets its “identifier for advertisers” (IDFA) system. An IDFA is a string of numbers that comes with each iPhone, allowing app companies to track clicks, downloads, and purchases. App makers can then sell your activity information to advertising companies for better targeting. 

When you opt-out of being tracked via App Tracking Transparency, you’re blocking the app from accessing your device’s IDFA, stemming the flow of information about yourself. The app developer is also not allowed to track you using other methods or sell your data to other companies.

So yes, there is a possibility that app developers could skirt the rules and find workarounds to gather user information, but they would be in violation of Apple’s App Store terms of service and risk having their app removed.

Why this iOS update is a big deal 

In short, the update isn’t a big deal for consumers if they have been paying close attention to their privacy settings on iOS. Apple users have been able to restrict their phone’s IDFA for a while now; it’s just been a little harder to find. In the past, users would have to head into Settings > Privacy > Tracking to do so. 

With the update, users installing an app on iPhone or iPad will be prompted to “Ask App Not To Track” or “Allow.” Not only can they opt out of tracking, but they are reminded of their right to privacy whenever they launch an app for the first time or download an app that intends to track them. This can be a massive headache for developers and advertisers who make their money off of tracking user data. 

Facebook is one of those companies and has been at loggerheads with Apple for months over the changes. In January, Facebook warned that Apple’s privacy changes would hurt small businesses.

However, in March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Clubhouse room with Josh Constine of venture capital firm SignalFire that he’s confident Facebook will manage through the changes. “It’s possible that we may even be in a stronger position if Apple’s changes encourage more businesses to conduct more commerce on our platforms by making it harder for them to use their data in order to find the customers that would want to use their projects outside of our platforms,” he said. 

Apple has given app makers some flexibility in the matter, letting them control when to show the pop-ups to users. Facebook, for example, has gone a step further by writing a letter to users addressing the changes and making their case for getting more relevant ads in support of small businesses. 

Can I still be tracked if I opt out? 

Once you’ve opted out of tracking, not only do app developers no longer have access to your phone’s IDFA system but it is not permitted to track you via other means. A small caveat is that Apple’s own apps still perform some form of tracking to serve ads within its ecosystem of apps. For example, you will still receive personalized ads while visiting the App Store and Apple News app. 

Therefore, if you want to encrypt your traffic, you should consider using a VPN for iOS.

Read more: Google’s tracking cookies are going away. Is that good?



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