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Apple publishes online guide to help users understand how data tracked

Martyn Landi, PA Technology Correspondent
·4-min read

Apple has published a new online guide designed to help people better understand how widely they can be tracked across apps and websites as they use their devices on a daily basis.

As part of Data Privacy Day, the tech giant has updated the privacy page of its website with a file that acts as an explainer around the data tracking industry.

The company has also released details of an upcoming privacy tracking transparency feature, to be rolled out in the spring, which will enable users to block many of the processes mentioned.

The online explainer document, called A Day in the Life of Your Data, uses the premise of a man named John planning a day at the park with his daughter to show how normal daily activities can be used to harness data.

It explains how trackers are built into the software that powers most apps in order to collect data users agree to share with the app, and can be used by third parties to link data collected across different apps to learn more about a user.

Apple says the average app has six different trackers embedded within it.

In the example, the father uses his computer in the morning to look up the weather, read the news and check a map app on his phone for traffic conditions to the playground.

On the journey to the park, four apps on his phone collect and track his location periodically – data which app developers can then sell to data brokers who can use it to build a comprehensive profile of him, including day-to-day movements, by piecing together anonymous data from multiple apps.

This data can be used to serve adverts, and Apple uses the example of the daughter in its scenario seeing an advert for a scooter as she plays a game on her father’s tablet on the journey to the park.

The ad is targeted because the company behind it are trying to reach people exactly like the father in this situation; living in the same city, with his income and with a young child – all of which is information gathered from data from across different apps and websites.

The report also highlights how even apps such as photo filtering services can gather data because, in order to use many such apps, users must give the app permission to access their photo library, which gives the app and its trackers access to all the pictures on that phone and the attached metadata, such as the time and location of when those images were taken.

Post these images online via a social media app and it can link the data from a social media account – such as email address and phone number – with all the other information collected by other apps, Apple says.

In the tech giant’s park trip scenario, the father and daughter stopping to buy ice cream – and paying by credit card – provides yet another way for firms to build a profile of someone’s preferences using shopping habits.

That data can be combined with all the other data picked up, including location and spending trends, to build a picture of the family’s shopping habits and the fact that they have a young child to help target them with adverts for people in those demographics.

“At the end of the day, a number of companies John has never interacted with, all around the world, have updated their profiles with information about him and his daughter,” Apple’s report says.

“These companies know the family’s house location, the park they visited, the news websites they read, the products they browsed, the ads they watched, their purchasing habits, and the stores they visited.

“This data was collected and tracked across multiple apps John and his daughter used throughout the day, as well as from other sources.

“John had no idea how much data was being collected throughout the day, didn’t always have control over it, and didn’t knowingly give permission for it to occur.”

The firm has already released a number of privacy-based updates designed to better secure user data and offer more choice to users, including the introduction of privacy nutrition labels as standard to all apps across its App Stores, allowing users to see what data an individual app will want access to.

Apple’s report can be found at