Apple reaches silent truce over iPhone privacy changes | GeekComparison

A privacy statement appears on an iPhone 12 under the new iOS 14.5.1 operating system.  Application developers must request permission from the user to allow cross-app tracking.
enlarge A privacy statement appears on an iPhone 12 under the new iOS 14.5.1 operating system. Application developers must request permission from the user to allow cross-app tracking.

Image Alliance | Getty Images

Apple has allowed app developers to collect data from its 1 billion iPhone users for targeted advertising, in an unacknowledged shift that allows companies to take a much looser interpretation of their controversial privacy policies.

In May, Apple announced its privacy changes to the general public and launched an ad showing a harassed man whose daily activities were closely monitored by an ever-growing group of strangers. When his iPhone asked him to ask “Ask App Not to Track”, he clicked on it and they disappeared. Apple’s message to potential customers was clear: when you choose an iPhone, you choose privacy.

But seven months later, companies, including Snap and Facebook, are allowed to continue to share signals from iPhones at the user level, as long as that data is anonymized and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles.

For example, Snap has told investors it plans to share data from its 306 million users — including those who ask Snap to “unfollow” — so advertisers can get “a more complete, real-time picture” of how ad campaigns work. All personally identifiable information is first obfuscated and aggregated.

Similarly, Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg said the social media group was engaged in a “multi-year effort” to rebuild its advertising infrastructure “using more aggregated or anonymized data.”

These companies point out that Apple has told developers not to “derive data from a device for the purpose of uniquely identifying it.” This means they can observe “signals” from an iPhone at a group level, allowing for customization of ads that can still be tailored to “cohorts” that match certain behaviors, but aren’t associated with unique identifiers.

This type of tracking is becoming the norm. Oren Kaniel, the chief executive of AppsFlyer, a mobile attribution platform that partners with app developers, said that when his company introduced such a “privacy-focused” tool based on aggregated measurements in July 2020, “the level of pushback we received from the whole ecosystem was huge.”

But now such aggregated solutions are the standard for 95 percent of its customers. “The market changed their minds in a radical way,” he said.

It’s not clear if Apple actually blessed these solutions. Apple declined to answer specific questions for this article, but described privacy as the North Star, implying it was a general destination rather than defining a narrow path for developers.

Cory Munchbach, chief operating officer at customer data platform BlueConic, said Apple had to move away from a strict reading of the rules because the disruption to the mobile advertising ecosystem would be too great.

“Apple can’t put itself in a situation where they’re basically removing their top-performing apps from a user consumption standpoint,” she said. “That would end up hurting iOS.”

For anyone who strictly interprets Apple’s rules, these solutions violate the privacy rules set up for iOS users.

Lockdown Privacy, an app that blocks ad trackers, calls Apple’s policy “functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking.” It conducted several tests on top apps, noting that personal data and device information are still “sent to trackers in almost all cases.”

But the companies that collect user-level data said the reason apps keep “leaking” information such as a user’s IP address and location was simply because some need such information to function. Advertisers need to know certain things, such as the user’s language or the screen size of the device, otherwise the app experience would be terrible.

The risk is that by allowing user-level data to be used by opaque third parties, as long as they promise not to misuse it, Apple is actually trusting the same groups CEO Tim Cook has labeled as “vendors who are just out to get it.” are to make quick money.”

Companies will promise to only look at user-level data once it’s anonymized, but without access to the data or algorithms working behind the scenes, users won’t really know if their data privacy has been preserved, Munchbach said.

“If a historical precedent in adtech holds, those black boxes are hiding a lot of sins,” she said. “It’s not unreasonable to assume it leaves a lot to be desired.”

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. May not be redistributed, copied or modified in any way.

Leave a Comment