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Apple’s App Tracking Transparency – What Does it Mean?

Michael Behr

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App Tracking Transparency

Now that Apple has provided a timeline for its long-planned IDFA changes, advertisers and marketers can start planning for the loss of a powerful tool.

Apple has announced its long-awaited App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature will roll out in early spring, according to a company statement.

The move will see the company’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) change from opt-out to opt-in across Apple’s iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and tvOS 14 operating systems.

The IDFA is a randomly generated device identifier that allows companies to track user activity across websites and apps. Companies use the IDFA to target adverts and follow the impact of campaigns.

In the old version of the operating system, users could deactivate the IDFA manually. This was difficult for those who did not know the option existed, requiring the user to navigate their device’s settings menu to find the Limit Ad Tracking (LAT) function.

Under the new system, LAT can be activated for individual apps, allowing users to tailor which apps can track their usage. Furthermore, the only way app developers can have LAT deactivated is by presenting the user with a dialogue box asking for the user’s permission to track them.

Once the user declines, the app cannot ask again, until it is deleted and reinstalled.

Time to Adapt

Losing the IDFA has concerned companies that rely on advertising and data-tracking, such as app developers, advertisers, and marketers.

Without it, personalising adverts will become tougher and will deprive marketers of key data on the performance of advertising campaigns.

With apps needing express permission to gather data, these companies are worried about how many people will choose to opt-in. Developers fear that over two-thirds of users will end up declining.

App Tracking Transparency was touted last June at a developer conference. Apple originally aimed to include it when it released iOS 14 in September 2020. However, its implementation was delayed to give app developers and advertisers time to adapt to the changes.

Despite this, many companies have complained that Apple is not providing clear guidance on how to retool apps to comply with the new rules.

Marketing trade organisation MMA Global and mobile attribution company AppsFlyer performed a survey and found that 37% of respondents claimed to have little or no understanding of the IDFA rules.

Backlash

Chief among the companies protesting the move is Facebook. With 98.5% of Facebook’s 2019 revenue coming from advertising, just shy of $70 billion, losing the IDFA will negatively affect the company’s bottom line.

One estimate warns that the changes could see Facebook lose up to 7% of its total revenue in the second quarter of this year, close to $5 billion.

With an advertising audience of around 2.14 billion people, Facebook provides a massive tool for marketing. The tech giant issued a warning in August that ATT could half Audience Network revenue for publishers.

In reaction, Facebook took out newspaper ads in December accusing Apple of depriving app makers of up to half their ad revenues by removing personalisation features.

To help advertisers and developers, Facebook created webinars to explain the potential impacts of ATT and the IDFA changes.

In addition, Google broke a long silence on the issue and published an explanation on the ramifications of the move for itself and to provide advice to app developers.

While the company noted that its developers are still working out how to adapt to the change, Google warned that app publishers could see a significant impact on Google ad revenues.

It advised developers to upgrade to the latest version of its advertising, development, and analytics platforms.

“We are working hard to understand and comply with Apple’s guidelines for all of our apps in the App Store,” Google said.

However, even tech giants like Facebook and Google have ultimately had to yield to Apple’s plan.

New Techniques

With the loss of the IDFA, app designers and advertising tech companies are now scrambling to find new ways to gather crucial data from their users.

For the tech majors, they have workarounds in place to find new ways to track user data. Facebook, as an example, has added a new login mode for app developers to avoid the IDFA prompts and collect a smaller portion of user data.

Dubbed the ‘Limited Login’ mode, this allows users to create new accounts or access existing accounts on an app while only sharing their name, profile pic, and email address.

This will appear less intimidating when the App Tracking Transparency prompt appears, with the idea of making users more likely to accept.

In addition, Facebook has begun pre-emptive trials of its own pop-up on iPhones and iPads. The message notes the benefits of data tracking, such as more personalised ads and supporting businesses that rely on advertising revenue.

For Google’s apps, users generally stayed logged in, so the company will be able to use its own tracking alternatives. As such, its advertising business will not be as hard hit by Apple’s move as other companies.

Apple also offers the SkAdNetwork, a more privacy-focused advertising platform. This allows advertisers to register their ads with Apple, which then notifies advertiser when a user engages with the advert. However, it does not include information that could identify a device or user.

For smaller companies, or those not using the tech giants’ platforms, the search is on for new techniques.

Unfortunately, some developers are considering more invasive techniques. These include methods such as ‘device fingerprinting’ which looks for signatures such as a device’s hardware and software characteristics to allow apps to recognise repeat visits from a smartphone, even across multiple apps.

Furthermore, the amount of data collected and the fact that it stored server-side by the app means that device fingerprinting could fall foul of GDPR, especially if it takes place without user consent.

Apple has forbidden the user of workaround techniques. As such, the use of device fingerprinting could result in an app being removed from the App Store.

Recommended

While introducing App Tracking Transparency has caused concerns for all groups that rely on advertising and data-collection for their revenues, privacy campaigners have welcomed the move.

In a statement to Digit, a Legal and Policy Officer from privacy activists Open Rights Group said: “Using personal data to deliver personalised ads is not a necessity, but a choice. However, cheating and coercing users into consenting to online tracking has become a widespread practice among the online advertising industry.

“Individuals should be given back control over the use of their data, and Apple’s decision to require users to opt-in to be tracked across their apps is a welcome step in this direction.

“In order to be legal, consent needs to be given by individuals who are informed and free to choose. By condemning Apple’s move, some of the biggest adtech players are showing their true colours, as well as the dire need of reform that the online advertisement industry faces.”

The IDFA previously came under fire from privacy rights groups, such as activist organisation NOYB.

They argue that Apple places its IDFA on iPhones without user consent, in violation of EU law, which requires user consent before allowing applications to track usage.

Apple has taken other moves recently to firm up its privacy requirements. In December last year, it started requiring apps on its App Store to display information indicating exactly what data they tracked.

In addition, Apple recently created a report to help people understand how companies use their customers’ data.

Michael Behr

Senior Staff Writer

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