Why Apple’s New Tracking System Does Less Than You Think

The key is education

Key Takeaways

  • Apple is now pushing its App Tracking Transparency framework as iOS 14.5’s release grows closer.
  • The ATT framework will completely change how apps collect user data.
  • Experts say these changes help highlight an essential part of protecting your online data: knowing what's at stake.
The torso of a business person holding a folder with "Top Secret" stamped on it.

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Experts say Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency framework isn’t designed to stop advertisers from tracking you; it only changes how tracking works.

Apple has been gaining a lot of traction thanks to multiple pushes for better user privacy over the past few iterations of iOS. One of the most noteworthy changes that the company has been building toward is the full introduction of its App Tracking Transparency (ATT) framework.

While the ATT system allows you to opt-out of letting app developers track you across multiple apps, experts say it isn’t a complete end to tracking on iOS. Instead, Apple is changing how advertisers track you while also protecting your private information.

"The new App Tracking Transparency features in iOS 14.5 requires apps to gain permission before tracking users across other apps and websites using an IDFA code," Ray Walsh, a privacy expert at ProPrivacy, explained in an email. 

"This results in heightened levels of privacy for users, and the ability to opt-out of [individual] tracking from the moment that they install an app."

Not Quite the Death of Mobile Ads

If the thought of advertisers tracking your movements across multiple apps is worrying, then the ATT framework could be the answer to those concerns. 

ATT requires all app developers to get explicit permission from users the first time they launch an app that wants to track them. If you choose to allow tracking, advertisers will see data directly related to the way you use other apps. If you choose to opt-out of tracking, companies can still track you, but only with much broader information.

The greatest benefit of the 'Transparency' feature may simply be educating consumers about the ways in which applications are commercializing personal data.

"Apple has created an alternative privacy-preserving method that allows app developers to track the frequency of app installations after being exposed to ads for that app using its SKAdNetwork," Walsh told us.

The SKAdNetwork Walsh mentioned is an application programming interface (API) that allows advertisers to see conversion data without revealing any user-level or device-specific data. It measures the number of clicks and impressions from ads for those applications, and gives the advertisers a broad definition of how successful those campaigns were.

Apple initially introduced it in 2018, but the system never was widely adopted. Now that Apple is pushing the ATT framework, many developers may find themselves relying on the SKAdNetwork to keep up with the analytics surrounding their applications.

The full extent of how this affects mobile ads is still unclear, but there’s no discounting the positives this move could bring to user privacy on Apple devices.

Surface-Level Changes

While most of the behind-the-scenes changes to how advertising campaigns are measured won’t necessarily be front and center for users, it’s important to understand the full extent of what the ATT framework brings to the table. On top of these tracking changes, ATT also introduces "nutrition labels" for applications.

A concept images of personal data displayed on a computer screen.

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"Apple now requires all app developers to provide a 'nutrition label' that gives the user information about its privacy practices, including the data practices of any third-party partners whose code they integrate into the app," Walsh explained.

Users already can find these labels on many applications in the App Store, and these will continue to be a vital part of Apple’s new privacy changes. They detail the different types of data used to track you, as well as the data the app could collect and link to your identity.

It’s a crucial part of the opt-out system, as knowing exactly what an app can track can help you determine whether or not to trust it.

Apple’s privacy changes and the push of the ATT could indeed shake things up a bit when it comes to how mobile advertisers track you and their campaigns’ successes. However, Rob Shavell, the CEO and co-founder of DeleteMe, a privacy-focused company, says that some advertisers already are looking for ways around the new policies, and data protection might hinge on education. 

"The greatest benefit of the 'Transparency' feature may simply be educating consumers about the ways in which applications are commercializing personal data. The real level of privacy being provided may not be as great as promised," Shavell told Lifewire in an email.

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