Apple’s anti-tracking capability praised by Canadian expert

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Apple’s new anti-tracking privacy capability has been praised by the head of a Canadian security awareness firm.

As promised earlier this year, Monday’s release of iOS 14.5 for iPhones and iPads comes with a feature called App Tracking Transparency (ATT), which requires apps to ask users if they want to be tracked across other apps and websites. Many sites and services say tracking allows them to serve targeted ads. But several privacy critics describe tracking at its most benign as an annoying process, and at its most dangerous, a potential risk to privacy.

But David Shipley, the head of Fredericton, N.B.,-based Beauceron Security, calls ATT a “phenomenal” idea.

“I think it should be mandated by the government when they overhaul our privacy laws,” he said in an interview. “This should apply to everything. It shouldn’t just benefit those who are wealthy enough to afford Apple devices and can afford privacy. This is the kind of right that everybody should have.”

Announced as an upcoming capability on Jan. 28, ATT is part of an Apple campaign to increase users’ ability to control their data. It began in 2020 with iOS 14 forcing app developers to add a so-called “privacy nutrition label” to their app descriptions, giving more information if personal data collected from their app is used to track a person’s activity across other websites and to other apps.

ATT goes one step further, requiring developers to show a screen allowing users to opt-out of tracking.

Image of an iPhone screen giving users the option of opting out of tracking
Apple offers this example of what an ATT screen should look like

As an article in Forbes points out, ATT could mean the end of identifier for advertisers (IDFA), which many apps use for tracking.

Several social media firms, especially Facebook, have been vocal opponents of ATT. So are some small online businesses that say they rely on targeted ads to survive.

Shipley shrugs off their worries.

He referenced a quote from U.S. department store magnate John Wannamaker, who said, “50 per cent of the ad money we spend is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which 50 per cent.”

Shipley pushed back against comments suggesting that IDFA effectively targets people with the right ads and that removing traditional tracking methods would hurt businesses.

“There’s not been enough research challenging how effective these ads (are). Can we determine whether they can be targeted at precise demographics? Sure. Did they make a difference compared to general advertising that doesn’t rely on such intimate tracking? Potentially.

“I don’t accept on its surface that it (ATT) is guaranteed to hurt businesses. If people want to be targeted, they should be given that opportunity. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t.”

ATT may have a positive side effect in making businesses less reliant on digital ads, he said, and push them back to marketing that may reach audiences in more effective ways.

As proof, he cited an article about the New York Times’ response to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The publisher blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages as well as behavioural targeting. Instead, it focused on contextual and geographical targeting. A company official said in 2019 ad revenues hadn’t dropped.

Forbes notes that Apple has created privacy-preserving ad technology to replace the IDFA through its SKAdNetwork, which tells the developer how many times a user has installed an app after seeing an ad for it, and Private Click Measurement, which shows the impact of ads leading users to websites without linking back to them.

“Generally speaking, Apple users will enjoy more privacy by making it harder for advertisers to understand what they are interested in,” said Daniel Markuson, digital privacy expert at NordVPN. “As a result, users will be served with untargeted ads, which will increase advertisers’ spending.”

Technology has been moving away from cookies and pixels for a while,” he added. “These are the technologies that enable cross-platform tracking for advertising purposes. Fingerprinting is considered to be the future of user tracking — not pixels  or cookies. What Apple does will benefit user privacy only for a short while.”

Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser of the McInnes Cooper law firm has a more subtle take. What’s called “tracking” is often an overly-simplistic way of characterizing a relatively complicated concept that can include a large number of purposes, he said in an email. Essentially asking someone whether they want to be “tracked” isn’t offering an informed choice. Most of the services we use on our phones and on the internet are supported by advertising. Advertisements that can be tailored to an individual’s interests are more relevant to the individual, more effective for the advertiser and more lucrative to the company that offers the app.

“If Apple is going to do this, it would be better if Apple (and the app developer) provided more information to the user about what tracking means in the context of the particular app, how it is used, and for what purposes. And the decision should not only be all or nothing, but more granular controls or more granular choices.

“I also understand that Apple’s policies require developers to offer the exact same experience to the user regardless of whether the user opts out of “tracking”. I think that’s unfair to developers, many of whom likely reply on targeted ads in order to make their apps free or at a reduced price.”

(This article was modified from the original with the addition of comments from David Fraser and Daniel Markuson)

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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