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Apple might be about to launch one of the most controversial features ever to arrive on iOS – and it’s unlikely that many users will even notice anything substantial will have changed about their phone.
The new iPhone update, numbered iOS 14.5, brings with it Apple’s “App Tracking Transparency” or ATT feature. It is intended to make it more difficult for advertisers to track people as they move between different apps on their phones, a change that Apple argues will help protect the privacy of those users.
To most people, the feature is unlikely to make much difference at all: you will see a dialog box asking them to opt in or out of tracking between apps, and if you choose the latter then they might see less relevant ads. Other new features coming to iOS in the same update – such as the ability to unlock your iPhone with your Watch while you are wearing a mask – will make much more of a difference in daily life.
But to Apple and companies like Facebook, the difference could be vast sums of money. The rollout of the feature has met with such controversy that it has already been delayed by months, and led to a rare public fallout between chief executives Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg.
Here is everything you need to know about the upcoming feature, which Apple said would arrive this week.
What is ATT?
The change really revolves around another set of initials: the IDFA, or identifier for advertisers. Until now, that identifier has been attached to an individual phone and available to advertisers.
That means, for instance, that an advertising company can watch as one IDFA moves from a social network to a shopping website, for instance, and associate the fact a phone saw an ad with the fact they then bought the product that was shown in it. In doing so, they are able to both gather information about users to inform ads and track how well those ads they have seen have worked.
The new change gives people the choice to show that IDFA to developers – or not. Users will have to respond explicitly to opt into such tracking, if they want to continue to be watched.
It is widely expected that the vast majority are expected to opt out of such tracking. As such, ATT gives users the choice, but in practice is likely to vastly reduce the amount of information users able to gather.
Why is Apple doing this?
Apple has repeatedly stated that it believes that privacy is a human right, and one it must work to protect. For its own business, that has meant ensuring that its devices track as little information as they can; for others, it has meant ensuring that its software protects against such information gathering.
In November, for instance, software chief Craig Federighi told The Independent that the new feature was part of a longheld commitment to privacy as a “core value” – and suggested that those opposing it would come around eventually.
In recent times, Tim Cook has suggested that advertising is more than just a privacy violation. He said earlier ths year that some businesses are built on” misleading users” and “data exploitation” – while he did not name Facebook, he was widely taken to be referring to it.
But Apple also has less of an interest in advertising in general, since it makes its money from selling devices and subscriptions rather than marekting. While Apple does sell ads itself, for instance in the App Store, its business is not built around them in the way Facebook’s is, for instance.
How have other companies reacted?
There has been opposition from across the advertising industry, but it has been led most loudly and vociferously by Facebook. In November, it launched a surprise attack on Apple, notable amid the usually restrained voice adopted by technology companies, especially in their dealings with each other.
It accused Apple of pretending that it cares about privacy but actually just attempting to protect its own profits, and suggested it was introducing the new feature because it was moving “away from innovative hardware products to data-driven software and media”.
Since then, however, Facebook has seemingly relented and acknowledged that it will have to comply with the rules. After Apple announced following its latest product event that the iOS update would be coming this week, it published a blog post in which it seemed to accept the update would be coming and advised advertisers how to comply with it.
It is notable that Google – which together with Facebook is estimated to make up a majority of the online ad market – has been less aggressive about the changes.
A blog post from the company in January made clear that it was planning to stop using the identifier, rather than asking users to assent, and that it was planning to comply with the rules in its own apps. “We are working hard to understand and comply with Apple’s guidelines for all of our apps in the App Store,” wrote Christophe Combette, the group product manager for Google Ads.
As Mr Combette’s quote suggests, the problems with the update haven’t only been philosophical, and some developers have had trouble understanding and integrating all of the changes into their apps. It’s for that reason that Apple has delayed the rollout from its planned introduction in September, and it says that in the time since it has been not only working with developers but also adding new features, such as an update that allows for the tracking of whether an ad led directly to a sale.