Apple pushes forward with a new App Tracking Transparency feature starting with the iOS 14.5 update. This is a privacy enhancing popup notification to remind users that apps are tracking them. When the new iOS update is installed, iOS device users could see a full page pop up notification requiring them to consent to being tracked across other websites and apps.
Apple defends this update as a measure to better protect users who are unaware of who is tracking them. Let’s face it, far too many of us are oblivious to the extent to which Facebook and other apps follow our online activity down every rabbit hole. Almost any smart phone user has had the experience of seeing an eerily accurate ad pop up on their feed for something they mentioned in passing, commented on, searched for, or clicked on.
According to the Apple website, “Tracking refers to the act of linking user or device data collected from your app with user or device data collected from other companies’ apps, websites, or offline properties for targeted advertising or advertising measurement purposes. Tracking also refers to sharing user or device data with data brokers.” Some of this information is harvested through a user’s Advertising Identifier, which does not reveal personal information, but can also include your name, email address, or other identifying information.
Facebook is fighting back against the App Tracking Transparency feature. In late 2020, Facebook took out full page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal claiming that this measure would harm small businesses relying on Facebook to reach their audience. Facebook stands to lose an estimated 7% of their second quarter revenue if 80% of iPhone users opt out of being tracked on the social media network. While 7% of revenue may seem like small potatoes, for a money-making giant like Facebook, this could mean an approximate $2 billion loss. Ouch.
“If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” This concept has been around and well understood in advertising circles since the TV advertising boom of the 1970s. However, it has regained traction with Facebook and other free apps tracking users’ activity to mine information. This activity record allows Facebook and others to give digital marketers and advertisers a hyper-targeted way to reach their ideal potential clients.
This opt-in vs. opt-out model will have an impact on apps like Facebook, that earn their millions if not billions largely by tracking users to create an opportunity-rich environment for advertisers. Most of us understand that a trade off of allowing some advertising tracking is precisely what allows us to use apps like Facebook for free. Thus Facebook’s concerns and implied threats to begin charging for the app use. Some iOS 14.5 users are already seeing a pop up stating that when users allow tracking, they are helping to “keep Facebook/Instagram free of charge.”
The concerns are how much of the tracking we are aware of, how much information they are actually tracking, and how little control we have over it. Not all iOS 14.5 users are seeing either of these pop ups yet (I am not seeing either yet, despite going into my Settings > Privacy > Tracking settings and toggling the button on to make it show up). Suffice it to say the dust has yet to settle on the matter.