Apple Tracking Transparency

Between the PR blitz, ad campaigns and the actual feature itself, the rollout of App Tracking Transparency means that iOS users are now more aware of the relationship between apps and third-party advertising and analytics companies. The power to deny an app the ability to do something many people were previously oblivious to — third-party tracking — with one button press is powerful and meaningful.

You won’t see an App Tracking Transparency dialog show up in any Apple app. This is because App Tracking Transparency falls solely under the purview of third-party tracking, and Apple’s apps technically don’t share data with anyone but Apple. Under the letter of the law, Apple is in the clear. But of course, it is Apple that wrote the law. It’s been niggling at me for months that App Tracking Transparency is defined in such a way that Apple’s own data collection activity is unaffected.

Apple Card needs to send your data to third-party agencies to check your credit. It just so happens that one exemption of ATT is reporting data to a third-party for the purposes of evaluating creditworthiness.

App Tracking Transparency comprises a laundry list of clauses and exemptions, but the main distinction is the first-party versus third-party thing. That puts Apple in the clear as it doesn’t run an ad network that other companies participate in; Apple serves ads to its users inside its own ‘first-party’ walled garden. Apple’s targeted advertising currently manifests itself in the News app (ad banners), the Stocks app (ad banners in integrated News stories), and the App Store (search ads).

Whilst it is true that Apple’s ad network uses far fewer signals than most of its competitors to target ads, it probably collects more than you think. Basics like age, gender, home address, current GPS location are in play. It also incorporates what kinds of media you download from the App Store to generate demographics buckets. To reiterate, Apple looks at what you have downloaded across its content stores — music, television, books and apps — and puts your Apple ID in appropriate marketing categories. For instance, this means Apple News can advertise games to you, because your account’s profile indicates that you like to play games.

I’d refer to this as Apple’s ad tracking. Apple officially calls this “Personalised Ads”, because it wants to define tracking as a third-party concept. The behaviour of Personalised Ads is not conveyed through any kind of user-facing dialog or permissions prompt, unlike Apple Tracking Transparency. In fact, Apple enables ads personalisation by default. The setting to turn it off is buried in Settings, tucked away at the bottom of the Privacy screen (conveniently positioned below the fold).

I don’t really have a problem with News targeting ads based on stuff I read in news. I think what irks me the most about this situation is that an Apple ID is a prerequisite to owning an iPhone and you can’t download any application from the App Store without one. Apple’s delineations of first-party and third-party allows the App Store to share any information it pleases with the News app, without telling the user at all. It feels wrong that News silently target ads to me based on the apps I download, the music I listen to and the television shows I watch.

The data Apple is collecting is relatively boring and benign … but it still is data collection for the purposes of advertising. This goes against the principles Apple advocates in its commitments to privacy and data minimisation. Again, it’s not that Apple is applying one rule for itself and another for developers. After all, Facebook is allowed to share as much data as it wants with Instagram and WhatsApp as they all fall under the first-party rule. But I have come to expect Apple to be better than Facebook, and I expect them to do more than the bare minimum.

It is self-serving that Apple classifies the App Store as first-party and therefore its ad network avoids the friction of App Tracking Transparency. As it stands today, the vast majority of iOS users have ads personalisation de facto enabled and they don’t even know what it is or that it is happening.

One way for Apple to behave better about this would be to treat the App Store as if it was a third-party operation. In accordance with its own rules, this would mean the App Store would need to get explicit permission before it could show targeted ads. The permissions dialog would educate users about the kinds of data Apple collects for advertising purposes and let them make up their own minds about whether they are comfortable with it.