Apps Will Need Explicit User Permission to Track iOS Users

Close up of women's hands holding smartphone while on her way to unknown location

Under Apple’s App Tracking Transparency Framework, application developers will need explicit permission from iOS users to track them or to access their advertising ID. The feature will be part of an upcoming software update which is said to arrive this spring. From then on, an automatic pop-up will prompt users to allow or deny apps to use their data to deliver personalized ads.

Your Advertising ID is Worth a Lot

Some years ago, several tech companies started assigning mobile devices an “advertising ID”. This ID can be sent to advertisers, marketers and other third parties. They will then use this ID to track the user’s movements and give more insight in their application usage. An advertising ID is stored on the device and can be retrieved by any app users download and install.

Based on a device’s ID, app developers can map user behavior, identify trends and even put certain users into cohorts. This way they get a much clearer picture of their users and understand how users interact with certain apps. Of course, developers claim this will give users “a better experience”. Or show them “only ads that are relevant to them”. The key question is: do users want this?

Currently, apps automatically receive this tracking ID. That is unless the user knows how to, and goes through the trouble of, changing privacy settings. They will also need to do this for every individual app. Therefore, in reality, most iOS users are frequently being tracked by apps without realizing.

New Privacy Control to Be Rolled Out This Spring

The new privacy control feature on iOS devices is meant to curb this practice. Apple announced yesterday that the App Tracking Transparency feature will be integrated in the upcoming beta update. There is no set timeframe for the rollout on all iOS devices. Yet it’s likely that the new feature will be part of a general iOS software update sometime this spring. The pop-up will prevent iPhone apps from secretly tracking people.

In concrete terms, the new feature will show users a pop-up. This pop-up will appear for every app that uses tracking capabilities for targeted advertising or advertising measurement purposes. The pop-up simply asks the user’s permission “to track you across apps and websites owned by other companies”. Users can then either allow tracking or ask the app not to track them.

Many developers expect a significant number of users will deny permission. This would make it more difficult for apps to generate sufficient revenue to run free features. Apple advises developers to include “a purpose string in the system prompt” that explains why they would like to track the users. Until the user gives explicit permission, the device ID will only send zeros to the app. In this way the app will not be able to track them.

Google And Facebook Lash Out

In fact, Apple announced this feature way back in September. However, after a Facebook led-outcry, Apple delayed the launch. This gave app developers more time to make the necessary changes to their app, message and advertising model. Privacy advocates, on the other hand, were extremely disappointed with the delay.

In the past couple of weeks, Facebook ran a big advertising campaign. Full page ads in national newspapers point out that some free digital services might cease to exist if they can’t aggregate personal information to personalize advertisements. Google, on the other hand, announced they will stop using Apple’s tool to personalize ads. In this way they’ll be able to avoid the new pop-up warning. Like Facebook, Google also relies heavily on personal data to generate massive profits.

It’s worth noting that app developers can still personalize their ads based on first-party data users provide them directly. The big difference is that now they must honor a users’ request to not share data for tracking purposes. Users who want to know more about the complex ecosystem of websites, apps, social media, data brokers and ad tech firms may want to read “A Day in the Life of Your Data”. A short story about John, who spends a day at the park with his daughter.

IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For VPNoverview.com she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments.