Why Apple’s Privacy Update Scares Big Tech

They should be scared

Key Takeaways

  • Apple will allow users to opt out of being tracked by advertisers.
  • Google and Facebook are terrified that users will find out how intrusive they are.
  • Google and Facebook have plenty of other ways to track us.
Someone holding a smartphone against a dark background with 'Privacy Concerns' displayed on the screen.
Thomas Winz / Getty Images

Apple will launch its App Tracking Transparency feature in the next beta update to iOS 14, and Facebook and Google are terrified. 

App Tracking Transparency requires apps to get the user’s permission to track them. Whenever an app wants to track your data and activity across the web and apps, it will be forced to show a box that asks to do so. Most users will opt out.

Take a look at the dialog below to see why. Google and Facebook’s businesses depend on being able to collect as much data from your activities as possible, and Apple’s new privacy-protection feature is driving them nuts.

Facebook privacy notice on an Apple iPhone.

"Apple’s push towards transparency will definitely have ramifications for its big tech neighbors," Jeremey Tillman, president of privacy app company Ghostery, told Lifewire via email. "We’re already seeing Google delay in updating their apps to avoid complying with the new privacy report, and it has not gone unnoticed by consumers."

How Will Apple Block Tracking?

There are plenty of ways for apps and websites to track you, from cookies, to your IP address, to advanced browser "fingerprinting," where sites log the unique combination of data provided by your web browser—fonts used, device used, and so on—to build an almost unique profile of each person. 

They also can make use of an IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers), an identifier used by mobile devices to allow apps and websites to track you. This is already on your phone. The only change is that Apple’s App Tracking Transparency tool gives the user control over which site can use it.

Apple also recently added privacy "nutrition labels" to App Store apps, requiring all developers to list the kinds of user data their apps collect. These labels must be added whenever an app gets its next update.

Though Facebook and Google stand to suffer a bit from this change, neither is really expected to suffer too much in the long term...

Google delayed updates to its core apps beginning last year, when the rules came into force, and has only just resumed. It also has removed IDFA tracking from “a handful of apps,” presumably so that users will never see the request to track them. From this alone, it’s pretty obvious that Google knows that nobody will opt into tracking.

"Companies like Facebook and Google are worried that the majority of users will ultimately decline to grant IDFA access permissions to most apps when presented with the notification," Attila Tomaschek, researcher at ProPrivacy, told Lifewire via email. 

What Will Happen To Google and Facebook?

It’s important to note that Apple is not blocking anything with these new features. It’s just giving the user information, and the ability to choose whether or not they allow tracking. But the reason Google and Facebook are so scared is because they know what they do is bad.

Google seems so afraid of bad publicity that it chose to pull IDFA tracking altogether, rather than let people discover what it’s up to. Facebook is going on the offensive, and is preparing an antitrust lawsuit against Apple.

Screens ID data
Laurence Dutton / Getty Images

One wonders what they hope to gain: after all, Apple is not actually blocking trackers here. But in the end, Google and Facebook will find other ways to track us, because their multi-billion-dollar ad businesses depend upon it. 

"In the long term, we can expect to see big tech players like Google and Facebook, who have heavy hands in advertising, take more creative approaches to continue to gather and exploit user data," says Tillman.

Tomaschek agrees: "Though Facebook and Google stand to suffer a bit from this change, neither is really expected to suffer too much in the long term, as other ad tracking options do exist, albeit potentially less effective overall.”

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