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Apple has rolled out App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature in the iOS 14.5 update. Find out how this feature works and why some groups are applauding ATT while others are fighting it.
For years, smartphone apps have been tracking where users go and what they do in the digital world. (A humorous but telling video shows what app tracking would look like in the physical world.) The data collected is often used for targeted ads or shared with data brokers. All of this is typically done without the app users’ consent.
Apple is changing this reality with the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature, which was rolled out in the iOS 14.5 update. Once the feature is installed, iPhone apps can only track users’ activities in other apps and websites if they obtain the app users’ permission.
The ATT feature is part of a larger effort to put privacy back in the hands of iPhone users. “At its foundation, ATT is about returning control to users — about giving them a say over how their data is handled,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook.
The ATT feature will likely upend how app tracking is handled in all mobile devices in the future, which pleases digital privacy advocates. “It’s a solid step in the right direction,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And iPhone users appear to like the new feature as well. They have been using it to let app developers and digital advertisers know that they do not want their activities tracked. Only 16% of iPhone users have allowed tracking, as of June 28, 2021.
Not surprisingly, Facebook and the digital advertising industry are not too happy about the ATT feature’s rollout. Facebook’s core business is expected to suffer because it will be harder for the company to gather user data and prove that the ads on its platform are effective, according to advertising industry experts. However, Facebook contends that the ATT feature is a bad idea because it will hurt small businesses that rely on app tracking to find customers. The social media giant even held a press conference and published a series of full-page newspaper ads trying to convince the world of this.
How the ATT Feature Works
Here is how the ATT feature works: In Apple devices running at least iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5, or tvOS 14.5, apps must ask for permission to track your activity across other apps and websites. When permission is needed, a dialog box appears asking if you want to allow tracking. You might also see an explanation of how the tracked data will be used, but including this information is optional for app developers.
The permission dialog box will give you two options: “Ask App Not to Track” and “Allow”. If you select “Ask App Not to Track”, the app is not allowed to use the system advertising identifier or any other personal identifiers (e.g., your email address or phone number) to track your activity. You will be able to use the app’s full capabilities no matter whether you deny or grant permission.
The option you select is saved so you will not be asked for permission from that app again. You can change the option for an app at any time in the Tracking page, which is in the Privacy section of the Settings app. The Tracking page also includes the “Allow Apps to Request to Track” setting, which is typically enabled by default. If you do not want any apps to track you and you are tired of being asked about your permission preference, you can disable this setting. From that point on, your device will automatically deny permission to all tracking requests without displaying the permission dialog box.
Don’t Like Being Tracked?
Do you dislike the idea of apps tracking where you go and what you do in the digital world? If so, you can immediately stop the tracking if you have an iPhone running iOS 14.5.
If you have an Android phone, don’t despair. Google is working on a similar feature for Android phones. It is expected to be available in late 2021.
Apple iPhone SE 2020 flickr photo by TheBetterDay shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license