Facebook v Apple: the looming showdown over data tracking and privacy

Facebook says collecting user data across the internet makes for ‘better experiences’. Apple – and privacy groups – are pushing back

Facebook is taking lessons from its debacle over WhatsApp privacy changes in a bid to prevent millions of its users opting out of allowing the company to track their interests across the internet.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, was forced to delay an update to its privacy policy last month when an in-app notification informed users that some data from the communications app would be shared with Facebook. It raised concerns about the privacy of chat messages and profile data, and led users to shift in droves to other encrypted messaging apps such as Signal.

Now a looming showdown with Apple over data tracking has prompted Facebook onto the front foot.

What will users see?

Some time in the next few months, iPhone users will be greeted by a message – not from Facebook, but from Apple – asking them if they will allow the Facebook app to collect their data. If users refuse, Apple will prevent Facebook from doing so.

A similar message from Apple will pop up, related to any app that collects data on users for advertising purposes.

Facebook says it will preempt the change by rolling out a pop-up screen over the coming weeks and months, making a plea to users to stay opted in.

“Agreeing to these prompts doesn’t result in Facebook collecting new types of data; it just means that Facebook can continue to give people better experiences,” a Facebook spokeswoman said.

What sort of data are we talking about?

It’s almost a given that when you shop online for shoes, you’ll suddenly find yourself served with ads for shoes across a bunch of other websites, or in your Facebook feed. If you’ve been in a physical store, you might see a related ad pop up in one of your apps later on.

The ability of websites to track you across the internet might creep you out, but companies know exactly where to pitch their advertising through data collected about everything from places you’ve visited to health information.

What is Apple doing?

Apple has been slowly pushing back on how much data apps can collect by giving users the option to turn off location tracking, and letting people know if an app is tracking their location while running in the background.

“Right now, users may not know whether the apps they use to pass the time, to check in with their friends, or to find a place to eat, may in fact be passing on information about the photos they’ve taken, the people in their contact list, or location data that reflects where they eat, sleep or pray,” Apple CEO, Tim Cook, said late last month at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference.

Late last year, it forced app providers in iOS to spell out what data they collect through “nutrition labels” in the App Store.

The label showing exactly how much Facebook Messenger collects, along with Facebook’s announcement that it was planning to use data from WhatsApp to advertise products to users, led to the exodus of users to encrypted apps such as Signal.

The next step for Apple is to allow users to opt out of data collection entirely. In an update to iOS14 to be rolled out in the next few months, Apple will allow users to control what data each app collects and switch it on and off at will.

What is Facebook’s response?

The move has been broadly welcomed by privacy groups, but Facebook sees Apple’s new privacy controls as a direct assault on its business.

Rather than arguing it needs to collect all this data on its users, Facebook has framed its objections as preventing small businesses from pinpointing where to place their ads.

Facebook has also argued Apple telling its users what types of data are collected by each app does not provide the context for how it is used.

“Apple’s new prompt is designed to present a false trade-off between personalised ads and privacy; when in fact we can provide both,” a Facebook spokeswoman said.

“Apple is doing this to self-preference their own services and targeted advertising products.”

Where is this privacy fight heading?

Apple is unlikely to back down, with Cook hinting that data collection by companies such as Facebook can be blamed for much of the rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories online.

“We can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement – the longer the better – and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible,” he said.

“Too many are still asking the question, ‘how much can we get away with?’ when they need to be asking, ‘what are the consequences?’

“A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.”

Cook said advertising had existedfor decades before technology began collecting vast amounts of data across websites and apps.

In a results call the day before Cook’s speech, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg accused Apple of making the decision on the basis of competitive interests, rather than privacy.

“We’re also seeing Apple’s business depend more and more on gaining share in apps and services against us and other developers,” he said.

“Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own.

“When you hear people argue that we shouldn’t be doing these things – or that we should go back to the old days of untargeted television ads – I think that what they are really arguing for is a regression where only the largest companies have this capacity, small businesses are severely disadvantaged, and competition is diminished.”

Where does Google stand on this?

Google has been much less aggressive about the changes, with the company’s most recent blog post stating it was working to comply with the changes for its apps, and advising customers they could see “a significant impact to their Google ad revenue on iOS” after the change.

But Apple may be gunning for Google’s business, too. The search bar in iOS14 quietly replaced Google’s search results with its own, but it’s a long step from Apple launching its own search engine, and given the debacle when Apple first tried to replace Google Maps on 2012, it is likely to take it slowly.


Josh Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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