Surprise, surprise: it turns out that some iPhone apps keep tracking users even when they use Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency feature to avoid being tracked.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, Apple added App Tracking Transparency in an update to iOS 14 earlier this year. The feature allows users to block applications from accessing their device’s Advertiser Identifier (IDFA), a kind of advertising identification number linked to a device. The change should prevent apps from sharing data collected about you from your iPhone or iPad with third-party companies (for example, Instagram could still share data with Facebook since they are the same company).
Unfortunately, what should happen and what happens are often completely different things. And according to an investigation by The Washington Post together with privacy-focused app developer Emergency shutdown (via Input), some apps and games ignore user settings.
Of the ten apps studied, Lockdown found that none stopped tracking when users requested not to be tracked. The investigation found at least three popular iPhone games, including Subway surfers, sent user data to third-party advertising companies, regardless of whether users had enabled App Tracking Transparency. Worse still, the investigation found that Apple had done nothing to stop it, despite being alerted to the problem.
Blocking access to IDFA does not matter because applications can use user fingerprints with other data
Here’s the thing: blocking an app’s access to its IDFA really works, in the most basic and basic way. The applications studied in the research did not have access to the users’ IDFA and did not use it for tracking. Instead, they effectively created their own device IDFA by collecting other metrics.
Going back to Subway surfers For example, the investigation found that it sent 29 data points about users’ devices to an advertising company called ‘Chartboost’. Some of the data points included users’ IP address, remaining free storage, current volume level, accessibility settings, device name, time zone, country, carrier, and more.
Collecting a large amount of data from devices like this is actually a common tracking tactic called a fingerprint. By collecting a large amount of seemingly innocuous data about a user’s device, companies can effectively track that device (and, by extension, the user) across various applications and platforms.
Few of the developers behind the apps responded to requests for comment from The Washington Post. Nevertheless, Subway surfers developer Sybo did, and claimed that it collected the data “for the game to work properly.” While perhaps some of the data points could help the game work, for example getting accessibility settings could help the game adapt to users who rely on those options, most of the data should have no impact. in the game function.
Apple needs to do more if it wants to be a company that prioritizes privacy
More than anything else, research shows that Apple’s app tracking transparency feature ultimately isn’t that helpful. Worse, it can even be detrimental by giving users a false sense of security. Apple is effectively telling users that they don’t have to worry about being tracked if they enable the feature. App Tracking Transparency also reinforces the company’s privacy image – I’ve seen many social media posts about how App Tracking Transparency convinced people to switch from Android to iPhone to improve their privacy.
If Apple were really serious about privacy, it would add fingerprint protection to iOS to reduce or hopefully stop tracking practices like this. In its current form, App Tracking Transparency is, at best, superficial marketing. At worst, it is detrimental to user privacy by tricking people into thinking they are protected when they are not.