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.




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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.




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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.

New Zealand, US and UK outrank Australia in scores on budget transparency


Miranda Stewart, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Teck Chi Wong, Australian National University

Australia ranks 12th in the Open Budget Index, and scores 74, much higher than the global average of 42 and the OECD average of 68. But Australia’s budget could still be more transparent if it included more on the budget’s impact on welfare and tax and by gender.

The Open Budget Index is published every two years and ranks countries using a transparency score, which is based on a survey for each country about publishing of budget documents, budget oversight and public participation.

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This year, there were 115 countries in the index and Australia was included for the first time. Australia ranks behind our neighbours New Zealand and also behind the United States, United Kingdom and France. The top three countries in the index are New Zealand (with a score of 89), South Africa (89) and Sweden (87).

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Each country’s survey for the index is prepared independently by an in-country civil society organisation or academic researcher. Applying standardised questions and based on evidence, researchers at the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute conducted the Australian survey. The assessments are also reviewed anonymously..




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How transparent is the Australian budget?

The survey assessed Australian federal budget process for the 2015-2016 year and the first half of the 2016-2017 year. Australia’s government performs well in publishing most budget documents at different points in the budget process.

The budget documents include: Budget Paper No. 1 (with a score of 87), the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) report (with a score 93) and the The Auditor-General annual report (81). The government reformed these documents in the 1990s with the introduction of the Charter of Budget Honesty.

Where the Australian budget falls down is in engaging the public in the budget process. The index evaluates public participation with 18 indicators. Australia’s weakest score is in budget participation (41 out of 100). This indicates limited opportunities for the public to engage in the budget process.

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For example the Australia government doesn’t publish a pre-budget statement and publishes less information in the budget that has been approved by the parliament and the government summary of the budget (a simpler and less technical version of the government’s budget proposal and other budget documents). Australia also lags behind New Zealand in transparency of most reports.

Yet, given participation opportunities are much scarcer in most other countries in the world, Australia is in fact one of the top performers on this measure. Almost all countries have only scant opportunities for public participation (score 40 and below), except New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Philippines.

Where Australia scores really well is in its budget oversight by the Australian National Audit Office (a score of 100). But Australia presents a mixed picture on the checks and balances in overseeing the budget. The parliament provides adequate oversight at the executive and audit stage (that gets a score of 67); but limited oversight at the formulation and approval stage for the budget (with a score of 48). Overall, Australia gets a score of 70 out of 100, lagging considerably behind Norway (91) and Germany (89).

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The main barrier to improving this is the lack of pre-budget debate by the parliament. Budget Paper No. 1 is given to members of parliament less than two months before the start of the budget year, and in-year budget implementation is not examined by a parliamentary committee.

Room for improvement

It’s crucial that budget processes are fair, open, democratic and accountable. Australia performs well generally on budget transparency – as we should expect as citizens in a robust parliamentary democracy. But there is some room for improvement.




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For example, Australia’s budget contains much less information than in the past about distributional effects of budget policy on taxes and welfare. The government is no longer providing “cameo” tables, which show the projected impact in the real disposal incomes of different hypothetical families, as it did in the previous budgets prior to 2014-15.

The Australian budget also does not contain any analysis of the budget by gender. This is in contrast to the 1980s, during that time Australia was the pioneer in introducing gender budget analysis.

The ConversationThese gaps show us why it’s important for us to keep an eye on transparency. We should not be complacent. We need more public reporting, analysis and opportunities for public participation in the budget process.

Miranda Stewart, Professor and Director, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Teck Chi Wong, Research Assistant at the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.