App Tracking Transparency is here. What does it mean for you?

Petter Klingen Wright

Petter Klingen Wright


27. April 2021

Facebook is fighting Apple because of a small popup in their app. What's the big deal? And what does it have to do with you?


Illustration image of surveillance camera pointed at Phone

Since the summer of 2020, Facebook has placed full page ads in the biggest papers in the US, filed lawsuits and put millions of dollars into a media campaign against Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency. With iOS 14.5 it is finally here. What’s the big deal?

Last summer, Apple announced that they were taking steps in iOS 14 to ensure that the users got more control of their data. They said that apps had to disclose what data they collected in a simple form (comparing it to a nutritional label on food), they introduced Intelligent Tracking Prevention in their Safari browser (to prevent user tracking across the web) as well as the aforementioned App Tracking Transparency framework. But what is it? And why is it upsetting Facebook? And does Facebook have a point?

To explain it very quickly, apps now have to ask for permission when they want to collect data about you and your activity – if that data is shared with other companies.

The whole thing is a bit more complex than it seems at the surface. It really has to do with what sort of future we want. It has to do with the relation between computers, companies and people. In the end, it’s a story about people, money and power. It’s about you.

The bigger picture

I just want to zoom out here for a second, but I promise that we’ll come back to you soon!

Apple and Facebook are clearly different companies. Apple makes hardware and sells apps in their closed ecosystems, while Facebook is a service that connects people with each other, and with companies. Apple recently announced that they have over 1 billion active iPhones. Facebook has about 2.6 billion monthly active users. Any changes either of them makes will affect more people than most government decisions. And like governed countries, these big companies are aware of each other and compete with each other. 

You (yes, we’re back to you) might have a so-called smartphone, and on that phone, you might have apps. Some of these apps might even be social media apps, just like Facebook. You might even have an iPhone with Facebook on it. When you’re using apps, you’re dropping data everywhere. One app might get to know your location, another one might get to know what you’re having for dinner. Some apps give you rewards in the form of pictures, images and texts that it knows you’ll like in exchange for the personal data that you’ve fed to the machine.

Sounds like everything is a-OK then! Well, not really. There are a couple of big issues with this.

What the data says

«So what, someone knows that I like Lady Gaga on Facebook? Everybody knows that». Well, I agree, Lady Gaga is a fantastic artist, and showing that you like her in public isn’t really an issue. Data tells us that most people who like Wu-Tang Clan is heterosexual. By understanding that likes translate into data like that, you should know that you only need 68 Facebook likes to predict a person’s skin colour, sexual orientation and political leanings. The data Facebook gathers isn’t just likes either. They also track you across websites and apps that don’t have anything to do with Facebook. Now imagine how much data Facebook gathers in a day of your life. How well do you think the computer knows you?

How the data is used

You might think that these companies solely use this data for their ads. They prominently pop up between the content you opened the app for in the first place. If you create a Facebook ad, you decide a lot regarding who this ad will be shown to. You can specify where the recipient should live, if they’ve visited your website, how much income they have, what they like, what they hate and a whole lot of other things. This is Facebook’s main argument in the case against the App Tracking Transparency. They say that not giving them enough data will hurt a lot of small businesses, by making personalized ads less effective. And, while that is compelling, it’s also important to know what else that sort of data is used for.

How the data is misused

The most obvious example of misuse is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. By gathering data from naive Facebook-users through solutions like web quizes (“Which Seinfeld Character Are You?”), the political consulting firm gathered data that helped them pinpoint exactly where they should place their ad money and what the message should be. Analysts say that both the companies pressed their fingers heavily on the scale for both the pro-Brexit and Trump-campaigns. So, for the small business owner, personalized ads are helpful. For companies that have massive amounts of data, it’s a tool that can truly change the course of history.

The consequences don’t need to be as big, of course, it could be that the companies are just pushing more of what they would like you to watch or do. Like Netflix presenting you with more of their movies, Spotify getting paid to push artists in people’s “personalized” playlists, or Amazon recommending products they get a bigger cut from. I actually think these consequences might even be worse, as they can feel dehumanizing. It’s a way of robbing you of your choices – of your personality.

Back to App Tracking Transparency

Illustration of App Tracking Transparency on an iPhoneTo be honest, App Tracking Transparency doesn’t really do that much. It asks users if they like to be tracked. The options are ‘Ask App Not to Track’ or ‘Allow’. Right now, the three things happen if you don’t allow tracking.

One, the app won’t be able to access the IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers), a piece of text used by trackers to identify devices across apps. Two, you send a signal to the company and the app developers that you’re not interested in being tracked. Three, you become aware of the tracking.

Is App Tracking Transparency a big deal or not?

It’s not easy to say. It might make more people aware of the bigger issue with big data gathering that I’ve been trying to highlight here. Blocking the advertising ID might not do much, as companies use a load of other tactics in order to identify the user.

This is probably also just  a first step for Apple. They will announce a new version of iOS in a couple of months, and it would be surprising if they take the privacy focus further. Governments haven’t really been good at regulating tech, so it’s interesting to see tech trying to regulate itself. Not that Apple is as innocent as they might seem, as they use their platform to promote the apps and services they own in a way competitors can’t.

What I really hope happens is that people and companies become more aware of the data they gather and share. I hope companies become better at explaining what they use the data for. Maybe the tracking you have on your website should be for you and not some tech giant? Maybe you should rely less on the algorithms? Maybe you should not only press ‘Ask not to Track’, but tell companies so directly. This story, in the end, is about you.