The big picture: Apple said in a letter to privacy advocates that it's implementing 'app tracking transparency' in iOS 14 a little early to stop Facebook from collecting "as much data as possible" to monetize its users. The social giant immediately fired back, accusing the Cupertino giant of using its dominant position to "self-preference their own data collection."
Last month, a coalition of civil and human rights organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook expressing disappointment at the company's decision to delay the full implementation of iOS 14's anti-tracking features until early 2021.
Earlier this month, Apple backtracked on those plans and decided that it would implement privacy 'nutrition labels' as a mandatory feature that developers must bring to their iOS apps as early as next month. However, we don't know the full details on how that system will work, and what steps Apple is going to take in ensuring that developers provide accurate information about what user information is tracked by their apps.
Apple has now responded to the letter, and offered to clarify a few things about its plans to protect user privacy on iOS 14. Jane Horvath, who is the company's senior director of global privacy, explained that the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature was delayed to allow developers ample time to prepare for the changes. Starting next year, developers will not only be required to ask permission from the user before tracking them across apps and websites, the user themselves can disable that tracking altogether.
Horvath says the feature was developed as a result of increasing concern about users being "being tracked without their consent and the bundling and reselling of data by advertising networks and data brokers." She also notes that ATT is not meant to prevent advertising, but just as a way of encouraging advertising that respects user privacy on the same level as Apple:
Advertising that respects privacy is not only possible, it was the standard until the growth of the Internet. Some companies that would prefer ATT is never implemented have said that this policy uniquely burdens small businesses by restricting advertising options, but in fact, the current data arms race primarily benefits big businesses with big data sets. Privacy-focused ad networks were the universal standard in advertising before the practice of unfettered data collection began over the last decade or so. Our hope is that increasing user demands for privacy and security, as well as changes like ATT, will make these privacy-forward advertising standards robust once more.
The letter maintains the same critical stance that Tim Cook has cultivated at Apple which holds that social media companies such as Facebook are inherently evil and must be regulated as promises of self-policing have not translated into real world actions.
By contrast, Facebook and others have a very different approach to targeting. Not only do they allow the grouping of users into smaller segments, they use detailed data about online browsing activity to target ads. Facebook executives have made clear their intent is to collect as much data as possible across both first and third party products to develop and monetize detailed profiles of their users, and this disregard for user privacy continues to expand to include more of their products.
Back in August, Facebook became the most vocal critic for the App Tracking Transparency feature and described it as a dramatic change that would render its Audience Network tools so ineffective that it may even reconsider offering it on iOS 14. Of course, the actual projected revenue drop is 40 percent, so it's not exactly the end of the world, but the social giant has been looking for ways to mitigate the impact of these changes.
Furthermore, Facebook has now responded to Apple's statements with a long statement of its own where it accuses the latter for trying to distract users from privacy issues that have been revealed in the last few years, such as the IDFA used on iOS devices, and the possible data harvesting methods used on macOS spotted by security researcher Jeffrey Paul.
The latter issue is particularly important, as it forced Apple to clarify how its Gatekeeper anti-malware service works, especially since it acted as a single point of failure last week for people who were trying to launch third party apps while Apple servers were being hammered with macOS Big Sur deployments. As spotted by 9to5Mac, the Cupertino giant quickly updated the support documentation to explain that Gatekeeper doesn't track users and will soon be updated to use an encrypted protocol for data transmissions and to allow users to opt out of these security protections.
Facebook alleges Apple is just brushing off these revelations and that it systematically weaponizes user privacy and market position whenever it's convenient in order to boost its own services, which may soon include a search engine.
They are using their dominant market position to self-preference their own data collection while making it nearly impossible for their competitors to use the same data. [...] They claim it’s about privacy, but it’s about profit.
Whichever the case may be, Apple may have chosen a fight with Facebook at the wrong time. The iPhone maker has often touted its attention to detail as well as the privacy and security of its users as major selling points, but that's becoming somewhat hard to believe. As for Facebook, it looks like it's simply upset that will soon have a harder time targeting a coveted demographic for advertising purposes.