Apple comes out swinging in the duel of the data titans | John Naughton

The tech firm’s new mobile operating system can stop apps tracking you, but is it as big a deal as everyone, especially Facebook, thinks?

I’ve just downloaded v14.5, the newest version of iOS, the operating system that runs my iPhone. Among the new features it boasts are: the option to unlock the phone with an Apple Watch while wearing a mask; support for something called the AirTag; separate skintone variations for emojis of couples; and more diverse voice options for Apple’s voice assistant, Siri. None of these “features” is of much use to me. But version 14.5 does add something that deeply interests me – the ability to control which apps are allowed to track my activity across other companies’ apps and websites.

Apple calls this “app-tracking transparency” (ATT) and it concerns a code known as “the identity for advertisers” or IDFA. It turns out that every iPhone comes with one of these identifiers, the object of which is to provide hucksters with aggregate data about the user’s interests. Ponder that for a moment and then reflect on the irony of a company that since 2013 has been selling such tagged devices, while at the same time bragging about its commitment to users’ privacy. Apple’s defence, of course, is that savvy users could have disabled the IDFA via the phone’s settings and privacy menus, a response that connoisseurs of evasiveness will recognise as the Jesuitical ploy used by tech companies that know most customers would rather eat raw seaweed than tamper with the factory defaults on their devices.

But iOS 14.5 apparently changes all that; now, iPhone users are asked if they want to opt in to tracking. A pop-up dialogue box appears saying: “Allow [app name] to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?” and providing two options: “ask app not to track” and “allow”. En passant, note that it says “ask” rather than “tell”, another subtle indicator of how much tech companies actually care about their users’ agency.

When Apple announced months ago that it was planning to make this change, the big shots in the data-tracking racket went apeshit, rightly inferring that many iPhone users would decline to be tracked when offered such an obvious escape route. Suddenly, the lucrative $350bn business of collecting user data to sell to data brokers, or linking a user’s app data with third-party data that was collected in order to target ads, was under threat. The new rules, Apple said, would also affect other app processes, including sharing location data with data brokers and implementing hidden trackers for the purpose of conducting ad analytics. Momentarily taken aback by the ferocity of the storm, Apple decided to postpone the introduction in order to give the industry “time to adapt” to the forthcoming reality, thereby breaking the golden rule that one should never give gangsters an even break.

In the run-up to last week, we were accordingly treated to a stimulating display of frenetic hyperbole from the surveillance capitalist crowd, led, as usual, by Facebook. Expensive full-page ads were taken in serious newspapers, bleating that the cruel and arbitrary changes imposed by Apple would hurt small businesses, which would no longer be able to reach their customers as easily as before. Apple, Facebook claimed, was abusing its “dominant market position to self-preference their own data collection while making it nearly impossible for their competitors to use the same data. They claim it’s about privacy, but it’s about profit. We are not fooled. This is all part of a transformation of Apple’s business away from innovative hardware products to data-driven software and media.”

As an example of a slag heap calling a kettle black, this takes some beating. So too does the spectacle of an $872bn company weeping crocodile tears over the plight of small businesses unable to reach their target audiences for embroidered handkerchiefs and humane rabbit traps. It is difficult, after all, to see how a vendor of rabbit traps needs information about what someone is doing on a fitness app to effectively advertise to its customers.

But before cueing the violins for poor, misunderstood Apple (currently worth $2.2tn ), it’s worth remembering that, as the New York Times pointed out, it has strangely omitted to mention that its new enthusiasm for transparency is good for its business as well as for iPhone owners. It’s all very well boasting that iPhones are terrific for privacy and bleating that targeted digital advertising is dangerous, but it becomes rather less convincing if one remembers that Apple takes billions of dollars each year from Google, the biggest targeted ad company on the planet, for having its search engine as the default on Apple devices.

The ironic puzzle underpinning this maelstrom of corporate cant is that nobody knows how big a deal Apple’s new facility will turn out to be. Will iPhone users opt out of tracking, en masse, as the data-tracking racketeers fear? Or are people actually more relaxed about it than they tell opinion pollsters? Only time will tell. For now, the only sure thing is that this columnist is opting out.

What I’ve been reading

Numbers game
The Woman Who Shattered the Myth of the Free Market is a lovely New York Times essay by Zachary Carter on Joan Robinson, the underestimated heroine of Keynesian economics.

Bog standards
In a stunning essay in the Baffler, Sami Emory asks why peat bogs get such a bad press.

Chips with everything
Someone has to run the chip fabrication plants. Noah Smith’s Substack on why we neglect Stem education at our peril.


John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

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