Friday, May 7, 2021

Does Apple News Track You?

Lockdown Privacy:

If Apple actually cared about privacy, they’d stop tracking users without consent in their own apps.


Screenshots of the Apple News third party tracking behavior, blocked by Lockdown Privacy on iOS 14.5, plus description of the Comscore company from Wikipedia (they’re one of the largest marketing/tracking companies on Earth).


Both iPhone analytics and Ask To Track are disabled, so tracking is supposed to be completely disabled. But apparently not for Apple. 🤔


Ads that are delivered by Apple’s advertising platform may appear on the App Store, Apple News, and Stocks. Apple’s advertising platform does not track you, meaning that it does not link user or device data collected from our apps with user or device data collected from third parties for targeted advertising or advertising measurement purposes, and does not share user or device data with data brokers.


We may use information such as the following to assign you to segments:


• Apple News and Stocks: The topics and categories of the stories you read and the publications you follow, subscribe to, or enable notifications from.

• Advertising: Your interactions with ads delivered by Apple’s advertising platform.

When selecting which ad to display from multiple ads for which you are eligible, we may use some of the above-mentioned information, as well as your App Store browsing activity, to determine which ad is likely to be most relevant to you.

I find Apple’s definition of tracking very confusing. Apple News and Google’s apps both use an opaque advertising identifier, separate from your user or device ID, and I guess this is somehow why they are able to say that they don’t track you. But it doesn’t seem like that should be enough. As Lockdown shows, Apple seems to be sharing the data with a third-party data broker. And, unless Google is segregating its data, it is falling afoul of the clause about linking app data with data collected from third-party apps or Web sites.

For Facebook, even if it uses the IDFA, Apple considers that tracking. Facebook knows who you are in the Facebook app because you’re logged in. But if an ad leads you to purchase an app, you probably won’t log into Facebook from within that app. So how can they know it’s you? Well, if that app can report the same IDFA to Facebook, that proves that you purchased the app.

Apple gets around this without “tracking” because it controls the App Store app, which is the only way to purchase apps. The ad and the purchase both happen in the same app, and they’ve defined tracking such that that doesn’t count. It’s not tracking if you own everything.

Timothy Buck:

Facebook selling an ad to a small developer and being able to prove it lead to an in-app purchase is “tracking” to Apple & requires opting in.

But Apple doing the same thing is described as “targeted ads” and does not require opting in.

Tim Hardwick (Hacker News):

According to the latest data from analytics firm Flurry, just 4% of iPhone users in the U.S. have actively chosen to opt into app tracking after updating their device to iOS 14.5. The data is based on a sampling of 2.5 million daily mobile active users.

There’s not much reason to turn it on given that Apple forbids apps from offering the user a benefit for doing so.


Based on Apple’s job postings I’m beginning to suspect their stance on ads and tracking was nothing more than a clever ruse to weaken competitors while they build their own a personalized ad business for iOS.


Update (2021-05-10): James O’Leary:

occasionally I challenge people about it, people wave it away with ‘differential privacy’, including a lead at Apple I talked to. they could not explain how it would work here

Update (2021-05-24): Damien Petrilli:

Never gave Apple any permission to farm my contacts in order to suggest Game Center friends. Still they do, and you can’t disable it.

Yet they claim to follow the same rules as third party devs...

Oluseyi Sonaiya:

I think the complaints about ATT aren’t just about app installs, because, as I understand it, it hinders FB’s ability to collect data about iOS users, period. It hurts the personalization that drives as performance across all of FB’s units.

See also: Nicolas Rieul.

Update (2021-06-05): Benjamin Mayo:

It’s been niggling at me for months that App Tracking Transparency is defined in such a way that Apple’s own data collection activity is unaffected.


I’d refer to this as Apple’s ad tracking. Apple officially calls this “Personalised Ads”, because it wants to define tracking as a third-party concept. The behaviour of Personalised Ads is not conveyed through any kind of user-facing dialog or permissions prompt, unlike Apple Tracking Transparency. In fact, Apple enables ads personalisation by default. The setting to turn it off is buried in Settings, tucked away at the bottom of the Privacy screen (conveniently positioned below the fold).


I think what irks me the most about this situation is that an Apple ID is a prerequisite to owning an iPhone and you can’t download any application from the App Store without one. Apple’s delineations of first-party and third-party allows the App Store to share any information it pleases with the News app, without telling the user at all. It feels wrong that News silently target ads to me based on the apps I download, the music I listen to and the television shows I watch.

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