I’ve just downloaded v14.5, the newest version of iOS, the operating system that runs my iPhone. Among the new features it boasts are: the option to unlock the phone with an Apple Watch while wearing a mask; support for something called the AirTag; separate skintone variations for emojis of couples; and more diverse voice options for Apple’s voice assistant, Siri. None of these “features” is of much use to me. But version 14.5 does add something that deeply interests me – the ability to control which apps are allowed to track my activity across other companies’ apps and websites.
Apple calls this “app-tracking transparency” (ATT) and it concerns a code known as “the identity for advertisers” or IDFA. It turns out that every iPhone comes with one of these identifiers, the object of which is to provide hucksters with aggregate data about the user’s interests. Ponder that for a moment and then reflect on the irony of a company that since 2013 has been selling such tagged devices, while at the same time bragging about its commitment to users’ privacy. Apple’s defence, of course, is that savvy users could have disabled the IDFA via the phone’s settings and privacy menus, a response that connoisseurs of evasiveness will recognise as the Jesuitical ploy used by tech companies that know most customers would rather eat raw seaweed than tamper with the factory defaults on their devices.
But iOS 14.5 apparently changes all that; now, iPhone users are asked if they want to opt in to tracking. A pop-up dialogue box appears saying: “Allow [app name] to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?” and providing two options: “ask app not to track” and “allow”. En passant, note that it says “ask” rather than “tell”, another subtle indicator of how much tech companies actually care about their users’ agency.
When Apple announced months ago that it was planning to make this change, the big shots in the data-tracking racket went apeshit, rightly inferring that many iPhone users would decline to be tracked when offered such an obvious escape route. Suddenly, the lucrative $350bn business of collecting user data to sell to data brokers, or linking a user’s app data with third-party data that was collected in order to target ads, was under threat. The new rules, Apple said, would also affect other app processes, including sharing location data with data brokers and implementing hidden trackers for the purpose of conducting ad analytics. Momentarily taken aback by the ferocity of the storm, Apple decided to postpone the introduction in order to give the industry “time to adapt” to the forthcoming reality, thereby breaking the golden rule that one should never give gangsters an even break.
In the run-up to last week, we were accordingly treated to a stimulating display of frenetic hyperbole from the surveillance capitalist crowd, led, as usual, by Facebook. Expensive full-page ads were taken in serious newspapers, bleating that the cruel and arbitrary changes imposed by Apple…