If we had a choice, would any of us want to be tracked online for the sake of seeing more relevant digital ads?
We are about to find out.
On Monday, Apple released iOS 14.5, one of its most anticipated software updates for iPhones and iPads in years. It includes a new privacy tool, App Tracking Transparency, which could give us more control over how our data is shared.
Here’s how it works: When an app wants to follow our activities to share information with third parties such as advertisers, a window will show up on our Apple device to ask for our permission to do so. If we say no, the app must stop monitoring and sharing our data.
A pop-up window may sound like a minor design tweak, but it has thrown the online advertising industry upheaval. Most notably, Facebook has gone on the warpath. Last year, the social network created a website and took out full-page ads in newspapers denouncing Apple’s privacy feature as harmful to small businesses.
A big motivator, of course, was that the privacy setting could hurt Facebook’s own business. If we choose not to let Facebook track us, it will be harder for the company to see what we are shopping for or doing inside other apps, which will make it more difficult for brands to target us with ads. (Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has disputed that his company’s business will be hurt by Apple’s policy.)
“This is a huge step in the right direction, if only because it’s making Facebook sweat,” said Gennie Gebhart, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit.
But, she added, “one big question is: Will it work?”
Ms. Gebhart and other privacy experts said Apple’s new feature might not be enough to put an end to shady tracking on iPhones. It could simply push developers and ad-technology firms to find loopholes so they can continue tracking people in different ways, she and others said. For about two months, I tested early versions of iOS 14.5 to get acclimated with the new privacy control and other new features.
Only a few developers have tested the pop-up window with the public, so my findings of how the privacy feature works have been limited. But I found that iOS 14.5 also has other significant new features. One can use Siri to work with a music player other than Apple Music, such as Spotify, by default. That’s a big deal: The voice assistant wasn’t convenient to use with other music services in the past.