Apple iOS 14.5 update includes ‘app tracking transparency’ feature

Setting means iPhone users can stop advertisers following their digital lives – to the ire of Facebook

Users of iPhones can now prevent advertisers tracking them across their apps, after the release of the latest software update from Apple introduced the controversial feature despite the protests of Facebook and the advertising industry.

The update, iOS 14.5, includes a setting called “app tracking transparency”, which for the first time requires applications to ask for users’ consent before they are able to track their activity across other apps and websites.

If users decline, then applications will not be able to access the unique user ID that they need to follow individuals as they live their digital lives. The prompt, which will say “Allow [app game] to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?” will show up for apps that request access to the ID number. They may be able to use other methods, known as “fingerprinting”, to achieve the same goal, but Apple says that doing so could cause them to be expelled from the App Store.

First announced last summer, app tracking transparency led to immediate pushback from the wider advertising industry. Initially slated for release in the autumn, Apple delayed its implementation for six months in order to give the industry time to prepare.

But the delay wasn’t enough for some, and in December, Facebook launched an all-out assault on Apple, with the company’s head of ads and business products, Dan Levy, claiming that the setting was actually “about control of the entire internet”.

“This is about a long-term view that is anti-personalised advertising and we think is trying to take the world back 10 or 20 years,” he added.

Facebook launched a glossy advertising campaign arguing that the real victim of the changes are “your neighbourhood coffee brewery, your friend who owns their own retail business, your cousin who started an event planning service and the game developers who build the apps you use for free”. Those small businesses, the company said, would lose out if they were no longer able to target customers with personalised adverts.

The social network is not alone in its opposition: a group of Germany’s biggest media, tech and advertising companies, led by digital publishing house Axel Springer, have filed a complaint with the German competition regulator arguing that the new rules could lead to a 60% fall in advertising revenues for app developers.

In France, an almost opposite complaint was made with the country’s privacy regulator, after consumer group Noyb argued in November that not only should the company roll out the privacy tools as soon as possible, but it should also remove the ID for advertisers entirely. “With our complaints we want to enforce a simple principle: trackers are illegal, unless a user freely consents,” said Stefano Rossetti, a privacy lawyer at Noyb.

In a letter to a coalition of privacy groups, Apple’s director of global privacy, Jane Horvath, sought to reassure them – and took the opportunity to criticise Facebook. “We developed [app tracking transparency] for a single reason: because we share your concerns about users being tracked without their consent and the bundling and reselling of data by advertising networks and data brokers.

“Facebook and others have a very different approach to targeting,” Horvath added. “Not only do they allow the grouping of users into smaller segments, they use detailed data about online browsing activity to target ads.

Alongside the privacy features, iOS 14.5 enables iPhone users to unlock their phone with their Apple Watch if they are wearing a face mask, and supports Apple’s lost-key-tracking device AirTag. It shipped alongside an update to macOS that fixes a “critical” security flaw.


Alex Hern UK technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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