Apple Ad Tracking Transparency Puts Users in Charge

Apple created a clever ad illustrating how ad tracking works. Ad Tracking Transparency gives users the power to choose which apps have access to their data.

We all know that our online activity is tracked. We know that our data is shared. But do we really know what data is being shared and what activity is being tracked? Do we really know what we’re giving apps and platforms access to when we agree to their terms? Let’s be real, most of us don’t read the fine print. The truth is, ad tracking is big business, and many apps share data across other apps. Without reading that fine print, we don’t truly know what information we are giving up. In an effort to show people how ad tracking works, Apple devised an ad with a real-world analogy.

The ad, which was released on April 26, follows a man throughout his day. Starting at a coffee shop, the man orders a cup of coffee and the barista follows him out of the shop. He gets into a cab and the barista follows, providing the driver with the man’s birth date. The driver and barista follow him throughout the day, monitoring his activity and viewing his data. Everyone the man interacts with follows him until he has a giant mob of people monitoring his behavior. Of course, at the end, the iPhone comes to the rescue with App Tracking Transparency (ATT).

ATT is something Apple rolled out with its iOS 14.5 software update. It gives users the power to turn off ad tracking altogether or on a by-the-app basis. The company says that, on average, each app has six tracking mechanisms from other companies. Once that data is collected, it’s aggregated and monetized by data brokers. Because of how internet usage and social media usage have grown over the last decade, there is a plethora of data out there on each person and every business. Most of which have no idea what information has been collected and shared.

Earlier this year, Apple also released a document that illustrates how apps share information by following a dad and his daughter for a day.

Data privacy is a big deal. Consumers are taking a harder stance on their information amid the increase in data breaches, but businesses should also be aware that this applies to them, too. Businesses are customers of other businesses and they have a social media presence. The tracking that is done might be different, but there is still data collection and sharing.

For example, if your business has a Facebook page, which it likely does, then Facebook is collecting information on your business. With that information, they are sharing data with third-party business partners. For consumers, the idea is ad personalization, companies want to know how to reach their target audience and gain a response. Businesses are more likely to be targeted by B2B companies with product offerings they think fit the bill.

You may think, why is this bad? I would rather see ads for products or services I find useful than something that’s of no use to me. Sure, most people do prefer that. But how many companies do you want to have access to your personal information? This can be birthdate, geographic location, what you like to browse online, what your purchase trends are, if you have kids or a hobby, it can be a phone number or email address or a number of other types of information. 

Now imagine that one of these third-party companies that has access to your data suffers a data breach. Some company you’ve never heard of sends you a letter informing you that your information has been compromised and you should take action to protect your identity.

Data privacy should be taken seriously by both consumers and businesses. Businesses need to protect proprietary information, customer information and employee information, among other things. Consumers need to protect their identity. That’s not to say that having an online presence is bad or that giving some companies access to your information is bad. The bank is going to need a lot of sensitive info to process your loan, but the bank won’t share that information. What we’re saying is that users and businesses should be picky about who and which companies have access to their data, and if they allow that data to be shared.

Let’s make this clear, consumers and businesses alike should have a web presence. They should be using the cloud and doing all of the things they are already doing to stay in business. But it is increasingly important to keep track of who has access to your data, no matter if you’re a business entity or private citizen.

It’s also important to note that it’s up to developers to abide by Apple’s new ATT rules. If you’re a developer, be sure to pay attention to the new rules and follow accordingly.

About the Author

Pieter VanIperen, Managing Partner of PWV Consultants, leads a boutique group of industry leaders and influencers from the digital tech, security and design industries that acts as trusted technical partners for many Fortune 500 companies, high-visibility startups, universities, defense agencies, and NGOs. He is a 20-year software engineering veteran, who founded or co-founder several companies. He acts as a trusted advisor and mentor to numerous early stage startups, and has held the titles of software and software security executive, consultant and professor. His expert consulting and advisory work spans several industries in finance, media, medical tech, and defense contracting. Has also authored the highly influential precursor HAZL (jADE) programming language.

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