Why Apple’s quiet change to the way it shares our knowledge is a trigger for concern
In the last few years, protecting our data on the Internet has become a hot topic of conversation. The increasing use of smartphones and the resulting ever-growing library of applications have resulted in more personally identifiable information being disseminated online. However, it is often unclear how, when, or why the data we transfer is being used – or, perhaps more worryingly, who is using it.
With over 1 billion active iPhone users, Apple is one of many companies that has been at the center of discussions about how our personal information is managed online. In April of this year, the company boldly announced its new anti-tracking feature: when users log into an app that may be using tracking, they are greeted with an “Ask App Not to track” button. When you click on it, that is exactly what it will do and your privacy is guaranteed.
The next month, Apple posted an ad communicating its commitment to protecting user data. In it, a man is followed by a crowd of shoulder-length businessmen, the number of whom grows every time he uses his phone. When he clicks the magic button, they disappear in a puff of air. The message? Trust Apple and protect your data with just a tap of the screen.
Earlier this month, however, Apple reached an agreement that allows app developers to better access user data from iPhones, which seems slightly contrary to its obligations to protect users on the Internet. The subtly hit deal, which didn’t have the same fanfare as its April announcement, will give developers as well as third-party providers access to user data that can enable more targeted advertising. According to these new conditions, user data can no longer be linked to a specific person. However, app developers still have access to aggregated data that can reveal the movements, habits, and preferences of a group of people.
This new deal has fallen into the lap of companies like Facebook (now Meta) and Snap Inc. (developer of Snapchat), whose real raison d’etre – aside from helping people connect – is to generate income from advertising. Thanks to Apple, which enables social media companies to share user data extracted from their apps with advertising agencies, social media companies can continue to benefit a dangerous practice.
I spoke to Andrew Shvets, Chief Marketing Officer at Clario, an app that uses anti-fishing, anti-spyware, and data-breach mining software to help users protect themselves online. He told me, “Facebook’s business model is entirely based on ad personalization.
“When Apple launched iOS 14.5 with its new app tracking button, it was a heavy blow for both advertisers and apps like Facebook. The performance of the ads dropped dramatically, so advertisers simply reduced their social media advertising budgets and took that revenue elsewhere.
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It had proven too risky for advertising agencies to continue laying all eggs in (for example) Facebook in order to secure financial income for their customers. On a positive note, Apple’s app tracking button gave agencies the ability to innovate about ad placement and focus on their values again. However, according to the Financial Times, social media companies lost $ 10 billion in the second half of 2021 thanks to Apple’s data backup. Apple is even facing an investigation by an anti-monopoly watchdog in Poland over allegations that the company may have attempted to promote its own advertising platform by bringing competitors to their knees in personalized advertising services, “with the aim of trying to promote its own advertising platform to sell their own service better, ”as the President of the Watchdog said in a statement this week. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The fact that Apple has now reached an agreement with the app developers after effectively rewriting the rules for advertisers and researching them itself doesn’t come as a surprise to Shvets. He adds, “Apple, as one of the largest advertisers on Google and Facebook, also has a conflict of interest so the interests of users can never be fully central.” That means that when Apple hit Facebook in the wallet, it also damaged its own finances.
Although Shvets is of the opinion that Apple has made a “compromise” to protect its business interests, the media agency of the WPP group Mindshare sees the new deal with aggregated data for itself, as long as it adheres to certain conditions. “All of our research indicates that consumers are accepting data sharing when it makes sense (adding value to the user), memorable (they know why you have the data or remember they consented to its use) and is manageable (you can opt out of using it), ”says Alexis Faulkner, Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare. As long as these conditions are met, the ethical dilemma of sharing user data is less of an issue. “When Apple provides apps with more consumer data, they can better serve their users’ needs. However, people need to be aware of how information about them is passed on to app developers. “
While Apple has watered down the extent to which app developers can access individual data, there is still cause for concern. For example, if Facebook has access to a device ID, they can merge real-time data with their existing data. This means that social media companies can monitor users’ online journeys as if there were no restrictions in the first place. As a reaction to the likely sneaky practices of Facebook, the German antitrust authority has now decided that the company will merge user data. While this signals a victory in some ways, it’s less clear if Facebook is facing the same restriction in other countries.
However, the “greatest evil”, as Shvets calls it, is the vulnerability of our data to hackers. Holding on to data, multinational app developers over the past decade have become sedentary ducks for those who want to take advantage of users’ online activities. This summer, 93 percent of LinkedIn members put their data up for sale by hackers. While the scraped-off data contained no financial information, it contained enough personal information to steal an identity and impersonate online.
Other violations like this happen all the time, from the Facebook exposure in April 2021 to the Twitter hacking scandal of celebrity accounts in 2020. Apple’s leniency with its privacy policies could potentially increase the likelihood of the same thing happening again, and then make users more vulnerable to online crimes like ransom and identity theft.