It’s one the most divisive issues in the modern developed world and yet one that so many barely know exists; your data and who it belongs to. Ask everyone in the world with a smart phone, I’d be shocked if more than a third truly understood what their ‘data’ really was and who had access to it. Yet the debates in the tech world rage on over data ownership and internet privacy while we all tap away on our apps, click yes to allowing ‘cookies’ and flick past ads like there’s nothing going on. However, for those who are paying attention, Apple recently unveiled a feature, called App Tracking Transparency, from its latest planned iOS update that already has people talking and is bringing the data conversation back into the forefront.
For those out there who aren’t fully clued in on what’s going on and what the issue at hand here is, let me give you a brief rundown. You might wonder how tech companies like Facebook make money when their service is essentially free (you don’t have to pay a membership fee to have a Facebook account). Well, they do it selling advertising spots on their platforms to other companies and in order for advertisers to get the most bang for their buck, they want their ads being seen by the users who are most likely to be interested in them. It’s simple marketing logic really, you wouldn’t hand out menus for a steakhouse at a PETA convention or throw up a nightclub billboard outside a retirement home, you would want the people seeing your ads to be likely to take an interest in them. What companies like Facebook do then, is they collect information (most commonly referred to as ‘data’) based on your usage of their platform and sell that information to advertisers who are seeking consumer behaviour insight. However, one of the key contentious points is that not only are companies, for example Facebook, able to track your activity while their own apps, they can continue to track your activity on third-party apps and websites. When this all comes together, these companies can put together a pretty comprehensive overview of your entire internet activity, which they make a massive profit off of selling. Time and time again companies have assured the public that this entire process occurs anonymously, but many are uncomfortable with the idea of anyone, let alone giant tech companies who are often victims of security breaches, having that much access into their personal habits.
Now that we’ve set the table, let’s get into the new feature. The feature is called App Tracking Transparency and it’s function is simple; when you enter an app that wants to track your data (for the purposes of creating personalised advertising), the feature brings up a prompt that asks you whether you want to “Allow” the app to do so or instead, “Ask App Not to Track”. If you choose the first option, everything goes on as normal and the company who owns the app can continue to track your data both in and out of the app. If you opt for the second option, the company in control will be unable to track any of your activity outside of their own app. So, they will still have access to your data created by your activity in their own app but will be shut out from accessing your data on apps beyond their own jurisdiction. Proponents of the new feature are hailing this as a long-overdue development which finally pushes back on tech companies and their ability to make billions off of what some consider the ‘labour’ of the users. Detractors, who have already begun to protest the implementation of feature, suggest that the victims of the change will be smaller advertisers, who rely on third-party data to create personalised ads and make money. It’s probably worth noting that the most vocal opposing voice has been Facebook, who stand to lose, relative to their income, a small chunk of revenue as a result of the new rules.
In the long run, the App Tracking Transparency isn’t likely to solve the great data debate and the issue will no doubt continue to divide. Hopefully, at least the little prompt that will pop up on the hundreds of millions of iPhones worldwide will have more users asking questions about what their data contains and who is looking at it. After all, it’s our data, maybe we should be involved in the conversation about where it’s going.
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