When Apple released iOS 14.5 last year, it made a fundamental change to the iPhone operating system that changed the course of advertising on the platform. The company finally introduced the App Tracking Transparency feature it first showed off at WWC 2022. For those unaware, App Tracking Transparency is a feature that allows users to block apps from collecting their usage data. Since an app cannot track the behavior of a user and how they use the app, it becomes difficult for advertisers to target ads.
Ever since Apple announced the feature, many big tech companies have been complaining about the effects it would have on their revenue. Following the feature’s launch, Snap reported that it lost millions of dollars due to App Tracking Transparency. Facebook also reported in its earnings call that it would have to rebuild its ad infrastructure from scratch due to the feature. last week, Lotame reported that the App Tracking Transparency feature could cost tech giants almost $16 billion in 2022.
A new research conducted by the University of Oxford (via ArsTechnica) now claims that many iOS apps on the Apple App Store are bypassing App Tracking Transparency and tracking user’s usage even if the feature is disabled. The research states that ATT works as intended in general, blocking the app from tracking your usage, but there are certain loopholes in the framework that allows the companies, such as Google and Facebook to collect data from the user’s device.
The researchers identified a total of nine apps that were using a server-side code to generate an Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA). For those unaware, IDFA is kind of like a cookie for devices. It allows the advertising agencies to exactly know how you interact with ads, what content you like/dislike, whether you made a purchase or not, and pretty much everything about ads you see on your iPhone. From iOS 14.5, Apple started keeping this identifier private from the apps, and hence they’ve not been able to target ads.
Coming back to the research paper, it states that some apps are tracking the app usage even when App Tracking is disabled by generating an identifier on their server. It claims that the code has been supplied by a subsidiary of the Chinese company Alibaba called Umeng. Alibaba was known to be “fretting” over App Tracking Transparency when it launched, and the company was on a tool that would let apps bypass the feature. It’s now being reported that the development of this “bypass” has been completed, and the companies are using it to track the users irrespective of the user allowing/disallowing tracking.
After testing nine apps and finding that they’re tracking users, the researchers compared nearly 1800 apps to see if they use any tool to track the user. “Almost a quarter of the studied apps claimed that they didn’t collect any user data, but the majority of them — 80 percent — contained at least one tracker library,” it adds.
Should you be worried?
For now, you shouldn’t be very worried about the apps keeping a check on your usage data. As the research states, App Tracking Transparency works mostly as intended. Even if the apps track your usage on their own servers, they’re not able to extract the same amount of data if app tracking was enabled. Hence, it is advisable to leave the option disabled if you don’t want the apps to be tracking you.
Moreover, Apple currently has strict rules when it comes to App Tracking Transparency. The company doesn’t allow app developers to offer rewards in exchange for enabling app tracking. And, there are quite a few things Apple can do at its end to stop apps from tracking usage via servers. The company can issue a new update to the iOS, which would make it harder for the companies to track your usage. It can also threaten developers to abide by the rules and not allow them to track users using their own servers.
All in all, the research makes us believe that the App Tracking Transparency feature is far from useless at the moment. If Apple patches the loopholes soon, it would be even better.
How to enable App Tracking Transparency on iPhone if you haven’t already
If you haven’t already disabled apps from tracking your usage on your iPhone, you can do the same in just a couple of steps. Read along and learn how you can disable app tracking from all the apps at once.
- First up, open Settings on your iPhone.
- Scroll down and then select Privacy → Tracking.
- Disable the Allow Apps to Request to Track option.
That’s pretty much it. You have now blocked all apps on your iPhone from even requesting to track your data. In fact, the apps on your iPhone will now not only be disallowed from tracking your usage, but the apps will not even be able to offer you a popup to allow app tracking.
Have you disabled app tracking on your iPhone? How has your experience been? Let us know in the comments section below!