November 30 2022 1:02 AM E-paper Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out

To be tracked or not? Apple is now giving us the choice

Photo of Facebook tracking active
(Photo: NYTimes)
If we had a choice, would any of us want to be tracked online for the sake of seeing more relevant digital ads?

We are about to find out.
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On Monday, Apple released iOS 14.5, one of its most anticipated software updates for iPhones and iPads in years. It includes App Tracking Transparency, a new privacy tool that could give us more control over how our data is shared.

Here is how it works: When an app wants to follow our activities to share information with third parties such as advertisers, a window will appear on our Apple device to ask for our permission to do so. If we say no, the app must stop monitoring and sharing our data.

A pop-up window may sound like a minor design tweak, but it has thrown the online advertising industry into upheaval. Most notably, Facebook has gone on the warpath. Last year, the social network created a website and took out full-page ads in newspapers denouncing Apple’s privacy feature as harmful to small businesses.

A big motivator, of course, was that the privacy setting could hurt Facebook’s own business. If we choose not to let Facebook track us, it will be harder for the company to see what we are shopping for or doing inside other apps, which will make it more difficult for brands to target us with ads. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has disputed that his company’s business will be hurt by Apple’s policy.)

“This is a huge step in the right direction, if only because it’s making Facebook sweat,” said Gennie Gebhart, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights nonprofit.

But, she added, “One big question is: Will it work?”

Here’s what you need to know about Apple’s new software.

Don’t Track Me (Please)

It’s important to understand how tracking works inside apps.

Let’s say you use a shopping app to browse for a blender. You look at a blender from Brand X, then close the app. Later, ads for that blender start showing up in other mobile apps, such as Facebook and Instagram.

Here’s what happened: The shopping app hired an ad-tech company that embedded trackers inside the app. Those trackers looked at information on your device to pinpoint you. When you opened other apps working with the same ad-tech firm, those apps were able to identify you and serve you ads for Brand X’s blender.

Apple’s new privacy feature is intended to let you decide whether you want that to happen. Now, when you open some apps, you will be greeted with a pop-up window: “Allow [app name] to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?” You can choose “Ask App Not to Track” or “Allow.”

When we select “Ask App Not to Track,” two things happen. The first is that Apple disables the app from using an Apple device identifier, a random string of letters and numbers assigned to our iPhones and used to track our activities across apps and websites. The second is that we communicate to the app developer that, broadly speaking, we don’t want our information to be tracked and shared with anyone in any way.

That seems easy enough. But No. 2 is where things also get slightly complicated.

Ad-tech companies already have many ways to follow us beyond Apple’s device identifier. For example, advertisers can use a method called fingerprinting. This involves looking at seemingly innocuous characteristics of your device — such as screen resolution, operating-system version and model — and combining them to determine your identity and track you across different apps.

It’s difficult for Apple to block all tracking and fingerprinting happening on iPhones, privacy researchers said. That would require knowing about or predicting every new tracking method that an ad-tech firm comes up with.

Overdue Features

Apple’s new software also includes two other interesting new features: the ability to use Siri to play audio with a third-party app such as Spotify and the option to quickly unlock an iPhone while wearing a mask.

For many, these will feel long overdue. Siri has generally worked only with Apple Music for music playback since 2015, which has been annoying and inconvenient for those who want to use the voice assistant to play songs using other music apps. The change comes as antitrust scrutiny mounts over whether Apple stifles competition by favoring its own apps.

To make Siri work with other audio services, you won’t have to change any settings. If you normally listen to music with a third-party app, such as Spotify, Siri will simply learn over time that you prefer that app and react accordingly. (Audio-app developers need to program their apps to support Siri, so if they haven’t done so yet, this won’t work.) That means if you always use Spotify to play music, you will be able to say “Hey, Siri, play the Beatles” to start playing a Beatles playlist on Spotify.

The other new feature helps solve a pandemic issue. For more than a year, wearing a mask has been extra annoying for owners of newer iPhones that have face scanners to unlock the device. That’s because the iPhone camera has not been able to recognize our covered mugs. Apple’s iOS 14.5 finally delivers a mechanism to unlock the phone while masked, although it requires wearing an Apple Watch.

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