iOS Features Offer ‘False Sense of Privacy,’ Says Former Apple Engineer

A new study shows that Apple's App Tracking Transparency features won't stop apps from tracking your activity.
Adam Rowe

Over the last three or four years, Apple has leaned into data transparency, building more and more features to give users control over their own privacy settings with each new iOS release.

But do those features usher in more privacy, or do they just make users think they do? According to former Apple iCloud engineer Johnny Lin, Apple's App Tracking Transparency button is “a dud” that does more harm than good.

Data privacy at big corporations seems to be increasing, a boon for consumers. But the evolution of our privacy standards isn't as smooth as it might look.

Why App Tracking Transparency Isn't Great

Apple's App Tracking Transparency (ATT) features rolled out April 2021 as part of the tech giant's iOS 14.5 update. You're likely familar with the pop-up that now appears when you download a new app, giving users an “Ask App Not To Track” button.

ATT dialog

Hit “no,” and it's a reasonable assumption that the app will now not be tracking your data. But you'd be wrong. Opting out of app tracking means that Apple blocks advertisers from using the unique ID that typically tracks your website and purchase history, but Apple can't block all the workarounds.

Lin is the co-founder of a tracker-blocking app, Lockdown Privacy, which recently released a study covering the topic, closely examining ten top App Store apps:

“App Tracking Transparency made no difference in the total number of active third-party trackers,” the study found, “and had a minimal impact on the total number of third-party tracking connection attempts. We further confirmed that detailed personal or device data was being sent to trackers in almost all cases. ATT was functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking, even when users explicitly choose ‘Ask App Not To Track.'”

In the absence of an ID number, the app might instead sends absurdly specific data to outside ad companies. This data could be your Internet address, your free storage, and your phone battery level up to 15 decimal points. With it, ad companies can potentially identify your phone (and there seems to be little reason why the apps would send it otherwise).

That's against Apple's policies, but when covering this new study, the Washington Post contacted Apple and reported no action was taken, even weeks later.

“When it comes to stopping third-party trackers, App Tracking Transparency is a dud. Worse, giving users the option to tap an ‘Ask App Not To Track' button may even give users a false sense of privacy,” Lin told the Washington Post.

Mobile security and privacy measures are worthwhile, from iPhone-specific VPNs to password managers, but iPhone users can't protect themselves against data harvesting that's already illegal.

iPhone Users Don't Want to Be Tracked

The statistics show that a truly overwhelming majority of iPhone users would prefer their data remain as private as possible.

As of May 2021 (more or less right after ATT rolled out), a paltry 4% of iPhone users in the United States, and just 12% worldwide had actively decided to accept the opt-in app tracking arrangement. Those numbers have risen noticeably since then, and seem to be around 25% globally now, with more trusted app developers faring better than lesser-known ones.

But the trend is clear. Given the choice, users overall want to stay private. Lets hope Apple continues tweaking their ATT features and exploring additional avenues for actually giving its users the control they want — not just making it look like they have.

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Adam is a writer at Tech.co and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for the last decade. He's also a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry (and Digital Book World 2018 award finalist) and has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect. When not glued to TechMeme, he loves obsessing over 1970s sci-fi art.

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