Research Shows Apple's New Do Not Track App Button Is Privacy Theater
from the privacy-theater dept
While Apple may be attempting to make being marginally competent at privacy a marketing advantage in recent years, that hasn’t always gone particularly smoothly. Case in point: the company’s new “ask app not to track” button included in iOS 14.5 is supposed to provide iOS users with some protection from apps that get a little too aggressive in hoovering up your usage, location, and other data. In short, the button functions as a more obvious opt out mechanism that’s supposed to let you avoid the tangled web of privacy abuses that is the adtech behavioral ad ecosystem.
But of course it’s not working out all that well in practice, at least so far. A new study by the Washington Post and software maker Lockdown indicates that many app makers are just…ignoring the request entirely. In reality, Apple’s function doesn’t really do all that much, simply blocking app makers from accessing one bit of data: your phone’s ID for Advertisers, or IDFA. But most apps have continued to track a wide swath of other usage and location data, and the overall impact on user privacy has proven to be negligible:
“Among the apps Lockdown investigated, tapping the don?t track button made no difference at all to the total number of third-party trackers the apps reached out to. And the number of times the apps attempted to send out data to these companies declined just 13 percent.”
Researchers found the new system actually provided users with a false sense of security and privacy when very little had actually changed.
Even when consumers “opted out,” most of the apps were still collecting data metrics like volume level, IP address, battery level, browser, cellular carrier, and a long list of other data points, allowing companies to craft elaborate profiles of individual consumers. And little to none of this is being meaningfully disclosed to actual users. Perpetually, the adtech industry tries to argue that none of this is a big deal because much of this data is “anonymized,” but that’s long been nonsense. Studies repeatedly show that when there are enough data points floating about in the wild, nobody on the internet is truly anonymous.
The fact gets buried in conversations on this subject, but the entire adtech tracking ecosystem, from app makers and “big tech” to telecom and every data broker in between, is a largely unaccountable mess. All operating in a country with no meaningful internet-era privacy law, and privacy regulators that intentionally have a tiny fraction of the resources and funding as their overseas contemporaries. So when you see privacy scandal after privacy scandal emerge, it’s important to understand that this is a conscious policy choice driven by greed, not just some organic dysfunction that showed up one random Tuesday.
And unfortunately, so far, most of the big pronouncements by major tech giants about consumer privacy, whether it’s Apple’s shiny new app privacy button or Google’s FLOC technology, aren’t doing much to actually fix the problem. And, in some cases, they have the potential to make a bad problem worse. Actually fixing this problem would cost a whole lot of people a whole lot of money, so instead we get (waves hands around at a wide variety of privacy theater) whatever the hell this is supposed to be.