Apple’s new ‘app tracking transparency’ has angered Facebook. How does it work, what’s all the fuss about, and should you use it?


Amr Alfiky/AP

Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan University and Nikolai Hampton, Edith Cowan UniversityApple users across the globe are adopting the latest operating system update, called iOS 14.5, featuring the now-obligatory new batch of emojis.

But there’s another change that’s arguably less fun but much more significant for many users: the introduction of “app tracking transparency”.

This feature promises to usher in a new era of user-oriented privacy, and not everyone is happy — most notably Facebook, which relies on tracking web users’ browsing habits to sell targeted advertising. Some commentators have described it as the beginnings of a new privacy feud between the two tech behemoths.

So, what is app tracking transparency?

App tracking transparency is a continuation of Apple’s push to be recognised as the platform of privacy. The new feature allows apps to display a pop-up notification that explains what data the app wants to collect, and what it proposes to do with it.

Privacy | App Tracking Transparency | Apple.

There is nothing users need to do to gain access to the new feature, other than install the latest iOS update, which happens automatically on most devices. Once upgraded, apps that use tracking functions will display a request to opt in or out of this functionality.

iPhone screenshot showing new App Tracking Transparency functionality
A new App Tracking Transparency feature across iOS, iPadOS, and tvOS will require apps to get the user’s permission before tracking their data across apps or websites owned by other companies.
Apple newsroom

How does it work?

As Apple has explained, the app tracking transparency feature is a new “application programming interface”, or API — a suite of programming commands used by developers to interact with the operating system.

The API gives software developers a few pre-canned functions that allow them to do things like “request tracking authorisation” or use the tracking manager to “check the authorisation status” of individual apps.

In more straightforward terms, this gives app developers a uniform way of requesting these tracking permissions from the device user. It also means the operating system has a centralised location for storing and checking what permissions have been granted to which apps.

What is missing from the fine print is that there is no physical mechanism to prevent the tracking of a user. The app tracking transparency framework is merely a pop-up box.

It is also interesting to note the specific wording of the pop-up: “ask app not to track”. If the application is using legitimate “device advertising identifiers”, answering no will result in this identifier being set to zero. This will reduce the tracking capabilities of apps that honour Apple’s tracking policies.

However, if an app is really determined to track you, there are many techniques that could allow them to make surreptitious user-specific identifiers, which may be difficult for Apple to detect or prevent.

For example, while an app might not use Apple’s “device advertising identifier”, it would be easy for the app to generate a little bit of “random data”. This data could then be passed between sites under the guise of normal operations such as retrieving an image with the data embedded in the filename. While this would contravene Apple’s developer rules, detecting this type of secret data could be very difficult.




Read more:
Your smartphone apps are tracking your every move – 4 essential reads


Apple seems prepared to crack down hard on developers who don’t play by the rules. The most recent additions to Apple’s App Store guidelines explicitly tells developers:

You must receive explicit permission from users via the App Tracking Transparency APIs to track their activity.

It’s unlikely major app developers will want to fall foul of this policy — a ban from the App Store would be costly. But it’s hard to imagine Apple sanctioning a really big player like Facebook or TikTok without some serious behind-the-scenes negotiation.

Why is Facebook objecting?

Facebook is fuelled by web users’ data. Inevitably, anything that gets in the way of its gargantuan revenue-generating network is seen as a threat. In 2020, Facebook’s revenue from advertising exceeded US$84 billion – a 21% rise on 2019.

The issues are deep-rooted and reflect the two tech giants’ very different business models. Apple’s business model is the sale of laptops, computers, phones and watches – with a significant proportion of its income derived from the vast ecosystem of apps and in-app purchases used on these devices. Apple’s app revenue was reported at US$64 billion in 2020.

With a vested interest in ensuring its customers are loyal and happy with its devices, Apple is well positioned to deliver privacy without harming profits.

Should I use it?

Ultimately, it is a choice for the consumer. Many apps and services are offered ostensibly for free to users. App developers often cover their costs through subscription models, in-app purchases or in-app advertising. If enough users decide to embrace privacy controls, developers will either change their funding model (perhaps moving to paid apps) or attempt to find other ways to track users to maintain advertising-derived revenue.

If you don’t want your data to be collected (and potentially sold to unnamed third parties), this feature offers one way to restrict the amount of your data that is trafficked in this way.

But it’s also important to note that tracking of users and devices is a valuable tool for advertising optimisation by building a comprehensive picture of each individual. This increases the relevance of each advert while also reducing advertising costs (by only targeting users who are likely to be interested). Users also arguably benefit, as they see more (relevant) adverts that are contextualised for their interests.

It may slow down the rate at which we receive personalised ads in apps and websites, but this change won’t be an end to intrusive digital advertising. In essence, this is the price we pay for “free” access to these services.




Read more:
Facebook data breach: what happened and why it’s hard to know if your data was leaked


The Conversation


Paul Haskell-Dowland, Associate Dean (Computing and Security), Edith Cowan University and Nikolai Hampton, School of Science, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Not just complacency: why people are reluctant to use COVID-19 contact-tracing apps



Mark Coote/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Farkhondeh Hassandoust, Auckland University of Technology

This week’s announcement of two new COVID-19 vaccine pre-purchase deals is encouraging, but doesn’t mean New Zealanders should become complacent about using the NZ COVID Tracer app during the summer holidays.

The immunisation rollout won’t start until the second quarter of 2021, and the government is encouraging New Zealanders to continue using the app, including the recently upgraded bluetooth function, as part of its plan to manage the pandemic during the holiday period.




Read more:
How to keep COVID-19 at bay during the summer holidays — and help make travel bubbles a reality in 2021


During the past weeks, the number of daily scans has dropped significantly, down from just over 900,000 scans per day at the end of November to fewer than 400,000 in mid-December.

With no active cases of COVID-19 in the commmunity, complacency might be part of the issue in New Zealand, but as our research in the US shows, worries about privacy and trust continue to make people reluctant to use contact-tracing apps.

Concerns about privacy and surveillance

We surveyed 853 people from every state in the US to identify the factors promoting or inhibiting their use of contact-tracing applications. Our survey reveals two seemingly contradictory findings.

Individuals are highly motivated to use contact-tracing apps, for the sake of their own health and that of society as a whole. But the study also found people are concerned about privacy, social disapproval and surveillance.

The findings suggest people’s trust in the data collectors is dependent on the technology features of these apps (for example, information sensitivity and anonymity) and the privacy protection initiatives instigated by the authorities.

With the holiday season just around the corner — and even though New Zealand is currently free of community transmission — our findings are pertinent. New Zealanders will travel more during the summer period, and it is more important than ever to use contact-tracing apps to improve our chances of getting on top of any potential outbreaks as quickly as possible.

How, then, to overcome concerns about privacy and trust and make sure New Zealanders use the upgraded app during summer?

The benefits of adopting contact-tracing apps are mainly in shared public health, and it is important these societal health benefits are emphasised. In order to quell concerns, data collectors (government and businesses) must also offer assurance that people’s real identity will be concealed.

It is the responsibility of the government and the office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure all personal information is managed appropriately.




Read more:
An Australia–NZ travel bubble needs a unified COVID contact-tracing app. We’re not there


Transparency and data security

Our study also found that factors such as peer and social influence, regulatory pressures and previous experiences with privacy loss underlie people’s readiness to adopt contact-tracing apps.

The findings reveal that people expect regulatory protection if they are to use contact-tracing apps. This confirms the need for laws and regulations with strict penalties for those who collect, use, disclose or decrypt collected data for any purpose other than contact tracing.

The New Zealand government is working with third-party developers to complete the integration of other apps by the end of December to enable the exchange of digital contact-tracing information from different apps and technologies.

The Privacy Commissioner has already endorsed the bluetooth upgrade of the official NZ COVID Tracer app because of its focus on users’ privacy. And the Ministry of Health aims to release the source code for the app so New Zealanders can see how their personal data has been managed.

Throughout the summer, the government and ministry should emphasise the importance of using the contact-tracing app and assure New Zealanders about the security and privacy of their personal data.

Adoption of contact-tracing apps is no silver bullet in the battle against COVID-19, but it is a crucial element in New Zealand’s collective public health response to the global pandemic.The Conversation

Farkhondeh Hassandoust, Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bible Apps in the Pew


The link below is to an article that reports on the increasing use of tablets, smartphones and other gadgets in the pew during church services as modern technology impacts at the local level.

Do you use a digital version of the Bible during church services? If so, what do you use? Please share in the comments.

For more visit:
http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/the-bible-gets-an-upgrade/