7 February 2021

The best explainer of what Apple is doing with the new iOS privacy-related feature

Sometimes, the best way to explain something is to use a good old analogy. John Gruber nailed it on his comments regarding Bloomberg editors’ poor choice of words when describing the upcoming iOS privacy feature — a new feature called App Tracking Transparency — wrongly calling it anti-tracking”:

Let’s say a cottage industry arose where commercial companies were, unbeknownst to most people, plugging their fleets of electric vehicles into the outdoor power outlets on people’s homes overnight. No one told us not to plug our electric delivery vans into these homes’ freely available power outlets.” And then, after this practice comes to light, the electric company adds a feature where every time a new vehicle is plugged into your outdoor power outlet, you, the homeowner, need to authorize that vehicle as being allowed to charge using the electricity you pay for. If you don’t authorize it, they don’t get the juice.

By Gurman and Grant’s logic, Bloomberg would describe this as an anti-electric-vehicle” feature. That’s nonsense. It’s just putting the owner in charge of access to a resource that, heretofore, they didn’t realize companies were taking from them without asking.

The advertising industry has been profiting from this lack of transparency for way too long. Not only what tracking can do and the amount of data gathered is creepy and problematic, but most of the time is is done without people even knowing about it, even tech-savvy users.

Another analogy by Gruber, this one from September 2020:

Real-world marketers could never get away with tracking us like online marketers do. Imagine if you were out shopping, went into a drug store, examined a few bottles of sunscreen, but left the store without purchasing anything. And then immediately a stranger approached you with an offer for sunscreen. […] We wouldn’t tolerate it. But that’s basically how online ad tracking works.

Companies — and not only advertising companies like Facebook and Google — have a responsibility too: Marketing departments are hungry for data about their potential customers, and are gladly using all the tools at their disposal, without much concerns about it being right or not. In these teams, things like GDPR, made to protect the end user, are only seen as obstacles or annoyances, not progress.


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