Report: Despite App Tracking Transparency, Apple Allows Facebook, Snap to Track User Activity

BY Chandraveer Mathur

Published 8 Dec 2021

apple tracked ad app tracking transparency

Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature nearly severed the proverbial jugular for Facebook and Snap by disallowing targeted advertising unless the user consents it. Now, a report claims that Apple is allowing these social media companies to follow a “much looser interpretation” of the App Tracking Transparency policy introduced with iOS 14.

The Financial Times reports:

“Apple has allowed app developers to collect data from its 1 billion iPhone users for targeted advertising, in an unacknowledged shift that lets companies follow a much looser interpretation of its controversial privacy policy.”

To get you up to speed, the App Tracking Transparency feature allows iPhone users to choose whether or not their identity for advertisers (IDFA tags) can be collected and used by installed apps and services. Facebook and Snap were heavily reliant on IDFA tags to track user activity and deliver targeted advertisements that generated revenue. At one point, Facebook even ran full-page newspaper advertisements arguing that the policy harmed small businesses. The social media giant’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, even told investors to expect a drop in revenue if Apple implemented the policy, which it did. Snap also attempted to bypass the policy’s provisions.

ios 14.5 app tracking transparency

Silent Truce for Mutual Benefit

The report from FT claims that the likes of Facebook and Snap “have been allowed to keep sharing user-level signals from iPhones, as long as that data is anonymized and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles.” It notes that Snap told its investors it would share data from its 306 million users with advertisers. If you’re wondering, this includes users who specifically ask Snap “not to track” their data. The platform argues that it would help advertisers gain “a more complete, real-time view” on how ad campaigns perform. Personal data of users will reportedly be “obfuscated and aggregated.”

The social media firms appear to be getting away with this by threading a fine line of obscurity in Apple’s rules. Companies “may not derive data from a device for the purpose of uniquely identifying it,” says Apple. However, the iPhone maker allows app makers to use iPhone “signals” at a group level to target ads at specific groups of users called “cohorts.” The people in such groups have typical behavior in common that cannot be traced back to their IDFA tags.

It is reportedly “unclear” whether Apple has actually “blessed these solutions” since it declined to answer any specific questions. FT says, “For anyone interpreting Apple’s rules strictly, these solutions break the privacy rules set out to iOS users.”

FT also cited a report from October that said the App Tracking Tracking Transparency policy was “functionally useless” for preventing third-party tracking:

“Using the open-source Lockdown Privacy app and manual testing, we found that App Tracking Transparency made no difference in the total number of active third-party trackers and had a minimal impact on the total number of third-party tracking connection attempts. We further confirmed that detailed personal or device data was sent to trackers in almost all cases. ATT was functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking, even when users explicitly chose “Ask App Not To Track.”


App Tracking Transparency

Our Take

We cannot help but second FT’s observation that user data is at the mercy of Big Tech corporations. The way the data is processed and treated is a complete black box for the average user. There is little one can do to help matters if Apple allows social media companies to disregard the very rules that it created to safeguard data.

“Companies will pledge that they only look at user-level data once it has been anonymized, but without access to the data or algorithms working behind the scenes, users won’t really know if their data privacy has been preserved.”

[Via Financial Times]