Apple releases long-awaited iOS update to restrict tracking by advertisers

You can allow Facebook and other apps to track your activity on your phone and online, or stop the tracking altogether

Dan Patterson – CBS MoneyWatch

Apple is giving millions of iPhone users a choice: Allow Facebook and other apps running on Apple’s iOS platform to track your activity on your phone and online, or stop tracking altogether.

What will you choose?

Apple’s new iPhone software, iOS 14.5, will be available starting next week, the company announced Tuesday. The update includes a major privacy feature called App Tracking Transparency, which requires apps to request permission before gathering user or device data. Specifically, the update changes the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), a unique, random number assigned to each iPhone that allows advertisers and developers to track user behaviour, including app usage and web browsing behaviour. The IDFA is often used to personalize advertisements.

Apple is also releasing software updates for its other devices, including the iPad, Apple Watch, Mac computers and Apple TV.

A spokesperson for Apple said the new privacy features were developed to “provide transparency and give users a choice if their data is tracked.” Apple requires all developers to adhere to the new policies, but will not require software makers to make the update immediately. 

Why Facebook objects

Facebook, Google and other big tech firms are unhappy with the changes.

In December, Facebook placed a full-page ad in the New York Times that claimed the user-tracking changes in iOS 14.5 would adversely affect small businesses. “[T]he average small business advertiser stands to see a cut of over 60% in their sales for every dollar they spend,” the Facebook ad stated.

A spokesman for Facebook was unable to verify the claim of a 60% loss to small business, but shared a Facebook blog post and video that asserts the Apple update will force developers to enable in-app purchases to make up for lost revenue. 

“It will force businesses to turn to subscriptions and other in-app payments for revenue, meaning Apple will profit and many free services will have to start charging or exit the market,” the blog post said. Facebook has previously warned advertisers that its ad network could become “ineffective” on Apple’s products.

Google does not plan to make similar changes to its Android operating system. The mobile OS has a similar device identification advertising feature called GPS ADID that allows advertisers on Android to personalize ads. The current version of Android also asks for one-time user permissions that enables app access to a phone’s location, camera and microphone.

A spokesperson for the company, which is owned by Alphabet, told CBS News, “We’re always looking for ways to work with developers to raise the bar on privacy while enabling a healthy, ad-supported app ecosystem.

A boon for privacy

The Google Chrome web browser will start limiting or removing data shared with third-party tracking cookies by early 2022, according to a company spokesperson. Instead of tracking individuals, Google plans to allow targeted ads to groups of users with similar interests, a move that it says is less invasive but which privacy advocates have criticized.

Apple’s update is “the most significant improvement in digital privacy in the history of the internet. And it will kneecap Facebook,” Jason Kint, a privacy advocate and CEO of the advertising trade association Digital Content Nextsaid in a tweet.

AdWeek, a trade publication for the advertising industry, recently surveyed a number of small business advertisers and reported that “nobody really knows” what to expect from the iOS changes. 

Other experts are more positive. Apple’s policy is fair for both advertisers and consumers, said tech analyst Rene Ritchie. “It’s good for consumers. It’s not bad for advertisers. If we think of it in a consumer-centric way, [advertisers] have just had unfettered access to our data forever and it’s built up almost an entitlement to ownership of who we are and what we do online,” he told CBS News.

Ritchie said consumers have the right to keep private or to share mobile phone and browsing data. “This is our data. And it’s so valuable to [advertisers] that they’re willing to spend all this money, accumulating it and analyzing it, but we still own it,” he said.