Some of China’s largest tech companies, including ByteDance and Tencent, are testing a tool to circumvent Apple’s new privacy rules and continue to track iPhone users without their consent to show them targeted mobile ads.
In the coming weeks, Apple is expected to roll out the changes it announced last June to iPhones that are said to give users more privacy. Until now, apps could rely on Apple’s IDFA system to see who clicks ads and which apps are downloaded.
In the future, they will have to request permission to collect tracking data, a change that is expected to be a billion-dollar bomb for the online advertising industry and is being opposed by Facebook, as most users are expected to refuse to be tracked.
In response, the 2,000-member state-backed China Advertising Association has launched a new way to track and identify iPhone users called CAID, which is being widely tested by tech companies and advertisers in the country.
ByteDance, the owner of the social video app TikTok, referred to CAID in an 11-page app developer guide obtained by the Financial Times, suggesting that advertisers can “use the CAID as a substitute if the user’s IDFA is not available.”
People close to Tencent and ByteDance confirmed that the companies were testing the system, but both companies declined to comment.
Several attempts are being made to get around Apple’s rules, but CAID is their biggest challenge yet, and the iPhone maker declined to comment directly. But in a move that sets the stage for a major showdown, Apple denied it would allow exceptions.
“The App Store terms and guidelines apply equally to all developers worldwide, including Apple,” the company said. “We strongly believe that users should be asked for their consent before being tracked. Apps found to be ignoring the user’s choice will be rejected.”
A person familiar with the situation said Apple could detect which apps are using the new tool and block them from the App Store in China if desired.
But Zach Edwards, founder of Victory Medium, a tech consultancy, said, “They can’t ban every app in China. If they did, it would essentially lead to a series of actions that would throw Apple out of China.”
Three people with knowledge of briefings between Apple and developers also said the Cupertino, California-based company would be wary of taking strong action, despite a clear violation of the stated rules, if CAID gets the backing of both the Chinese tech giants. as government agencies.
Rich Bishop, chief executive of AppInChina, a leading international software publisher in China, suggested that Apple could “make an exception for China” because tech companies and the government are “so closely aligned.”
Meanwhile, Yang Congan, chief executive of Digital Union, a Beijing-based data privacy company, suggested that CAID was designed to circumvent Apple’s rules, as its tracking methods may not “uniquely” identify the user. “This is the space the industry has yet to explore,” said Yang, suggesting this gray area was intentional.
CAID has been in a free demo phase for selected companies for the past few months. Two people who have been briefed on the matter say that Apple is aware of the tool and has turned a blind eye to its use so far.
The system is intended for use by local app developers in China, but at least one French gaming group has been encouraged to use it, and several foreign advertising companies have already applied on behalf of their Chinese divisions, two people familiar with the matter said. CAID is expected to be released publicly this week, according to a person briefed on the plan.
Dina Srinivasan, a US-based antitrust scientist, said the issue highlighted how Apple’s policies alone couldn’t solve glaring privacy concerns.
“The big picture is there’s just too much money at stake,” she said. “There will always be an arms race to follow consumers. Only legislation can stop it.”
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