The back of an iPhone showing the new iOS 14 feature that allows users to selectively disable ad tracking

Apple Makes a Major Privacy Move by Allowing Users to Disable Ad Tracking and Have Greater Insight Into App Permissions

The headline announcement from Apple’s 2020 Worldwide Developers Conference was that users would be getting an unprecedented level of control over personal privacy, enough that it might entirely upend mobile marketing on iOS. The headline item was that users would be able to selectively disable ad tracking by making their unique ID invisible to certain apps, but a suite of other enhanced privacy features was introduced: more detailed breakdowns of app permissions, new indicator lights and new Safari screening features among them.

The changes to Apple ads will be coming with the new iOS 14 operating system, which is expected to be released sometime in September.

Apple puts an (optional) end to ad tracking in individual apps

The biggest news is that Apple device users will now be able to opt out of Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) tracking on an app-by-app basis. As the name indicates, this unique device ID is provided to marketers primarily for targeted advertising purposes. While it is supposed to be randomized and not tied to any personally identifying information, developers would sometimes overstep intended boundaries with it when using it for traffic analytics purposes.

The system will be opt-in at the user end, but will proactively display a warning before running each new app indicating that it wants to track users “across other apps and websites.” A screenshot of the warning is phrased in such a way that it looks like users will overwhelmingly opt in.

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The move follows over a year of campaigning by various groups, with Mozilla playing a key role. Mozilla ran a petition for monthly rotation of IDFAs in 2019 that gathered 20,000 signatures, and sponsored a poll late in the year that indicated half of all iPhone users did not know that the identification number existed or that it was used to track users.

The marketing industry is bracing for a significant hit to the mobile advertising business, assuming that most users will choose to opt out of ad tracking when presented with this warning notification. There is an existing ability to opt out of some IDFA ad tracking in iOS, but it requires users to go through the settings menu and does not allow them to pick and choose access for individual apps. A marketing study from March indicates that only about 30% of iOS users have enabled this “Limit Ad Tracking” feature.

Other iOS 14 privacy improvements

Changes are also coming to Apple’s location tracking settings in iOS, which in turn will likely have an impact on any kind of ad tracking (whether IDFA or third-party systems). Users will now be able to limit apps to accessing approximate data rather than a precise location, allowing for the use of location-dependent features while adding a substantial layer of privacy protection.

App permission lists are now also going to be divided into separate categories, with one unique list designed to highlight data that is specifically used to track users. And Safari will have a new “privacy report” button located near the URL bar, which will display all third-party trackers on a given website and allow users to selectively disable them. This may strike an additional blow to ad tracking as it gives users greater and more convenient visibility into third-party advertising campaigns that do not rely on the IDFA.

Focusing on hardware

The move to effectively dump ad tracking from Apple devices signals a doubling down on the company’s privacy-first branding and strategy of focusing on high-priced hardware sales to a more affluent consumer base willing to stay within the company’s curated and secure “walled garden” of software. It’s also possible that the company sees this as a simpler way to navigate a global regulatory landscape that is increasingly favoring strict privacy protections for end users.

The move is not necessarily a total net positive for users of iOS devices, however, as app developers are not likely to simply roll over and let their ad networks die. Instead, it is quite likely they will switch to other schemes that are less convenient and potentially more intrusive for the end user. For example, more apps might require users to create accounts with the developer and log in before using. Some free apps may opt to simply switch to a paid model rather than attempt to serve ads.

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There is some chance that Google will have Android follow suit at some point in the near future, as the search giant has been known to copy Apple’s user data privacy moves (such as ending support for third-party cookies in Chrome) albeit with a substantial amount of lag time. This move is less certain, however, as Google is much more dependent on marketing and ad tracking revenue than Apple is.


Senior Correspondent at CPO Magazine