Upcoming Apple privacy update has developers desperate for dodges | GeekComparison

This photo illustration in Warsaw, Poland, on December 17, 2020 shows social media applications on an iPhone.  Facebook has disabled several features of its Messenger app to comply with new data usage rules currently being introduced in the EU as part of the ePrivacy Directive.  (Photo illustration by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
enlarge / This photo illustration in Warsaw, Poland, on December 17, 2020 shows social media applications on an iPhone. Facebook has disabled several features of its Messenger app to comply with new data usage rules currently being introduced in the EU as part of the ePrivacy Directive. (Photo illustration by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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App developers are covertly exploring new forms of user tracking to circumvent Apple’s new privacy rules, which threaten to disrupt the mobile ad industry in the coming months.

In early 2021, an iPhone update will prevent apps from using advertising IDs known as IDFA without each user’s explicit consent for targeting. Developers expect more than two-thirds of users to block tracking when they see a popup in their apps.

Some app makers say they plan to use invasive tracking techniques such as “device fingerprinting” to get around the new restrictions, though doing so could put them at risk of being kicked out of the App Store if caught.

“100 percent, everyone will try to fingerprint whether Apple enforces their rules or not,” said a mobile game developer.

Privacy activists applaud Apple’s changes, but warn that it will never be possible to completely ban tracking.

“There will still be tracking,” said Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocate. “We’ll still see apps trying to do nefarious things. Whatever you do, you’ll have those bad actors.”

Facebook has criticized Apple’s change, running a series of newspaper ads in December accusing Apple of robbing app makers of as much as half of their ad revenue by removing personalization.

Few other developers are willing to engage in a public battle with Apple, whose App Store acts as a gatekeeper to a $500 billion economy. But privately, the makers of some of the App Store’s most popular apps are concerned, given the importance of advertising as a means of both revenue and distribution.

“The impact is almost unpredictable,” said the head of a major mobile game developer.

“This is a huge, huge change,” said the head of another leading mobile game developer. “It’s the biggest risk we have [as a company]… It can really negatively affect us.”

Developers are concerned that many in the advertising industry are still unaware of the magnitude of the changes to come. “Brands and agencies have no idea — they don’t have a full idea where the ecosystem is going,” said a policy officer at an app maker. “Technical intermediaries are forced to solve the problem.”

Under such pressure, some developers are desperately considering using new and more invasive forms of tracking, even if users don’t allow their apps to use IDFA.

Device fingerprints can be used to recognize repeated visits from the same smartphone, even across multiple apps. The technique, which is prohibited by Apple’s App Store rules but can be difficult to detect, works through a combination of a device’s hardware and software characteristics, configurations such as Internet connections, battery or language settings, and usage patterns.

Another way to track people between apps is if they use the same email address to sign up for different services and games. “Hashed emails,” in which addresses are converted into a string of letters and numbers, allow companies to share user data without handing over an individual’s email address directly to their partners.

While these techniques may be hard for Apple to detect, the costs of getting caught — and losing access to the world’s most lucrative mobile store — can be staggering. “Do you want to play with fire?” a developer asked.

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