Apple users can say no to being tracked with new software update

Apple Inc. rolled out a software update for its mobile devices on Monday that gives users the option to stop apps from tracking their location and sharing other identifying information with third parties.

New iOS will restrict what data apps can share with third parties

Apple is rolling out a software upgrade that will drastically change the way location and information-tracking apps like Facebook work on their devices. (Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)

Apple Inc. rolled out a software update for its mobile devices on Monday that gives users the option of stopping apps from tracking their location and sharing other identifying information with third parties.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based technology giant launched the latest version of its operating software, iOS 14.5, to the more than one billion people with iPhones around the world, including Canada, starting Monday morning.

While the upgrade contains a number of changes, one of the biggest is the addition of a beefed up privacy requirement the company is calling App Tracking Transparency, which any app that "collects data about end users and shares it with other companies for purposes of tracking across apps and websites" must abide by.

Services such as Facebook and others currently have the ability to track users on mobile devices in order to learn more about them to target advertisements and other location-based services to them. In some instances, the tracking is in place even if the user is not actively using the app in question. 

Once the new Apple iOS is installed, users will have the ability to deny apps the ability to track them and share the information with third parties — which would drastically impact the way they experience those apps, and the revenue that those apps are able to generate from their users.

Some apps would have much less information about the user to tailor their experience too, which could result in a less enjoyable experience. Others would likely be deleted or never used once it was made clear exactly how much data it is collecting on them, and how often.

Apps can still monitor users

To be clear, apps will still be able to monitor their users even if they decline.

The iOS user agreement will still allow data collection if it is spelled out in an app's privacy policy. The changes only affect whether app developers share data they collect with third parties, or mix their data with outside data from third parties to help target ads.

WATCH | Data security expert explains Apple's move

Privacy expert explains Apple's big privacy policy change

3 years ago
Duration 1:27
Featured VideoPeter Dolanjski with privacy-conscious search engine DuckDuckGo says Apple's update to its iOS is a major win for people who care about protecting user data. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)

So users will still be targeted by ads, even if they decline.

A social network like Facebook, for example, can still target ads based on first-party data of their own, such as which Facebook groups users join or which posts they like. But if Facebook wants to target ads based on data from which third-party websites people have used their Facebook credentials to log into, it will need to seek explicit permission.

Strong opposition

But the update is still a game changer for companies like Facebook. 

Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist with data security firm Sophos, says the move is "very good news for consumers."

"This is making these companies think twice about what they're collecting because it's quite embarrassing to prompt someone for 50 different things that seem unrelated to using the service," he said in an interview. "Why do they need to know how much battery is left in my phone?"

He says it's good to see a major technology company commit to the concept of "explicit consent" with regards to storing user data. 

"Most consumers ... know their info is being collected but they don't know the quantity and the type," he said.

Move could cost Apple, too

He is concerned, however, that Apple may lose its nerve if it costs them too much money.

"Apple makes a lot of money off selling apps," he said. "If people stop buying apps because of this, I can see Apple changing its mind."

There's certainly strong opposition to the plan from at least one influential app.

Apple announced the plan months ago, and Facebook pushed back against the plan strongly from the start, taking out full page newspaper ads accusing Apple of hurting small businesses and harming the internet.

In a blog post, Facebook argued the switch "will force businesses to turn to subscriptions and other in-app payments for revenue, meaning Apple will profit and many free services will have to start charging or exit the market."

"Apple may say that they're doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in January during an earnings call with analysts.

Toronto-based technology consultant Ritesh Kotak said in an interview with CBC News that the new policy is a message from Apple to anyone who wants access to its vast network of users that privacy cannot be an afterthought.

"Privacy is going to be front and centre," he said. "By Apple stepping up and saying, 'We're taking this step, and our entire ecosystem must adapt,' that itself is going to have a residual effect on the tech ecosystem in general."

The move also comes as governments around the world are in the midst of beefing up privacy laws to protect consumers more. The federal government is currently updating its digital privacy policy with an eye to giving consumers more control over their information under Bill C-11.

But Kotak says Apple has positioned itself as a company that keeps user data and privacy issues at top of mind and will go above and beyond what's required.

"When it comes to policies around privacy, laws aren't the ceiling, they're the floor," Kotak said. "It's the bare minimum that has to be done."

In response to Facebook's accusations of anti-competitive behaviour, Apple has said that "we believe that this is a simple matter of standing up for our users" and that people should have a choice of whether to allow their data to be collected and shared.

This image from Apple's report on privacy shows the permission screen that users will get to approve certain apps, once they have the latest operating system installed. (Apple)

In April, it published a report outlining how a web of advertising companies track people's online and offline behaviour "often without their knowledge or permission."

Among other things, that report noted:

  • The average app comes with no less than six trackers attached to it, which are there solely to collect and share data about users with third parties.
  • Roughly one in five apps designed for children collect data without ever explicitly asking for parental consent.
  • A single third party data broker identified by Apple was found to have a database on 700 million different people, broken down into 5,000 different categories

Many involved in the $100 billion US global mobile advertising market fear that the move will make ads less effective, since they can't be tailored to a specific user's interest and location.

For companies like Facebook, that means a hit to their revenue as advertisers will likely not be willing to pay as much for ads that are less efficient at selling things.

Some mobile advertising analysts believe that fewer than one in three iPhone users are likely to grant permission to be knowingly tracked.

With files from Reuters and the CBC's Meegan Read

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now