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Apple’s new ‘app tracking transparency’ has angered Facebook. How does it work, what’s all the …

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Apple users across the globe are adopting the latest operating system update, called iOS 14.5, featuring the now-obligatory new batch of emojis.

But there’s another change that’s arguably less fun but much more significant for many users: the introduction of “app tracking transparency”.

This feature promises to usher in a new era of user-oriented privacy, and not everyone is happy — most notably Facebook, which relies on tracking web users’ browsing habits to sell targeted advertising. Some commentators have described it as the beginnings of a new privacy feud between the two tech behemoths.

So, what is app tracking transparency?

App tracking transparency is a continuation of Apple’s push to be recognised as the platform of privacy. The new feature allows apps to display a pop-up notification that explains what data the app wants to collect, and what it proposes to do with it.

Privacy | App Tracking Transparency | Apple.

There is nothing users need to do to gain access to the new feature, other than install the latest iOS update, which happens automatically on most devices. Once upgraded, apps that use tracking functions will display a request to opt in or out of this functionality.

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iPhone screenshot showing new App Tracking Transparency functionality
A new App Tracking Transparency feature across iOS, iPadOS, and tvOS will require apps to get the user’s permission before tracking their data across apps or websites owned by other companies.
Apple newsroom

How does it work?

As Apple has explained, the app tracking transparency feature is a new “application programming interface”, or API — a suite of programming commands used by developers to interact with the operating system.

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The API gives software developers a few pre-canned functions that allow them to do things like “request tracking authorisation” or use the tracking manager to “check the authorisation status” of individual apps.

In more straightforward terms, this gives app developers a uniform way of requesting these tracking permissions from the device user. It also means the operating system has a centralised location for storing and checking what permissions have been granted to which apps.

What is missing from the fine print is that there is no physical mechanism to prevent the tracking of a user. The app tracking transparency framework is merely a pop-up box.

It is also interesting to note the specific wording of the pop-up: “ask app not to track”. If the application is using legitimate “device advertising identifiers”, answering no will result in this identifier being set to zero. This will reduce the tracking capabilities of apps that honour Apple’s tracking policies.

However, if an app is really determined to track you, there are many techniques that could allow them to make surreptitious user-specific identifiers, which may be difficult for Apple to detect or prevent.

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For example, while an app might not use Apple’s “device advertising identifier”, it would be easy for the app to generate a little bit of “random data”. This data could then be passed between sites under the guise of normal operations such as retrieving an image with the data embedded in the filename. While this would contravene Apple’s developer rules, detecting this type of secret data could be very difficult.

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Apple seems prepared to crack down hard on developers who don’t play by the rules. The most recent additions to Apple’s App Store guidelines explicitly tells developers:

You must receive explicit permission from users via the App Tracking Transparency APIs to track their activity.

It’s unlikely major app developers will want to fall foul of this policy — a ban from the App Store would be costly. But it’s hard to imagine Apple sanctioning a really big player like Facebook or TikTok without some serious behind-the-scenes negotiation.

Why is Facebook objecting?

Facebook is fuelled by web users’ data. Inevitably, anything that gets in the way of its gargantuan revenue-generating network is seen as a threat. In 2020, Facebook’s revenue from advertising exceeded US$84 billion – a 21% rise on 2019.

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The issues are deep-rooted and reflect the two tech giants’ very different business models. Apple’s business model is the sale of laptops, computers, phones and watches – with a significant proportion of its income derived from the vast ecosystem of apps and in-app purchases used on these devices. Apple’s app revenue was reported at US$64 billion in 2020.

With a vested interest in ensuring its customers are loyal and happy with its devices, Apple is well positioned to deliver privacy without harming profits.

Should I use it?

Ultimately, it is a choice for the consumer. Many apps and services are offered ostensibly for free to users. App developers often cover their costs through subscription models, in-app purchases or in-app advertising. If enough users decide to embrace privacy controls, developers will either change their funding model (perhaps moving to paid apps) or attempt to find other ways to track users to maintain advertising-derived revenue.

If you don’t want your data to be collected (and potentially sold to unnamed third parties), this feature offers one way to restrict the amount of your data that is trafficked in this way.

But it’s also important to note that tracking of users and devices is a valuable tool for advertising optimisation by building a comprehensive picture of each individual. This increases the relevance of each advert while also reducing advertising costs (by only targeting users who are likely to be interested). Users also arguably benefit, as they see more (relevant) adverts that are contextualised for their interests.

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It may slow down the rate at which we receive personalised ads in apps and websites, but this change won’t be an end to intrusive digital advertising. In essence, this is the price we pay for “free” access to these services.




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Facebook data breach: what happened and why it’s hard to know if your data was leaked


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Introducing an Update to the Data Protection Assessment

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Over the coming year, some apps with access to certain types of user data on our platforms will be required to complete the annual Data Protection Assessment. We have made a number of improvements to this process since our launch last year, when we introduced our first iteration of the assessment.

The updated Data Protection Assessment will include a new developer experience that is enhanced through streamlined communications, direct support, and clear status updates. Today, we’re sharing what you can expect from these new updates and how you can best prepare for completing this important privacy requirement if your app is within scope.

If your app is in scope for the Data Protection Assessment, and you’re an app admin, you’ll receive an email and a message in your app’s Alert Inbox when it’s time to complete the annual assessment. You and your team of experts will then have 60 calendar days to complete the assessment. We’ve built a new platform that enhances the user experience of completing the Data Protection Assessment. These updates to the platform are based on learnings over the past year from our partnership with the developer community. When completing the assessment, you can expect:

  • Streamlined communication: All communications and required actions will be through the My Apps page. You’ll be notified of pending communications requiring your response via your Alerts Inbox, email, and notifications in the My Apps page.

    Note: Other programs may still communicate with you through the App Contact Email.

  • Available support: Ability to engage with Meta teams via the Support tool to seek clarification on the questions within the Data Protection Assessment prior to submission and help with any requests for more info, or to resolve violations.

    Note: To access this feature, you will need to add the app and app admins to your Business Manager. Please refer to those links for step-by-step guides.

  • Clear status updates: Easy to understand status and timeline indicators throughout the process in the App Dashboard, App Settings, and My Apps page.
  • Straightforward reviewer follow-ups: Streamlined experience for any follow-ups from our reviewers, all via developers.facebook.com.

We’ve included a brief video that provides a walkthrough of the experience you’ll have with the Data Protection Assessment:

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We’re having trouble playing this video.

The Data Protection Assessment elevates the importance of data security and helps gain the trust of the billions of people who use our products and services around the world. That’s why we are committed to providing a seamless experience for our partners as you complete this important privacy requirement.

Here is what you can do now to prepare for the assessment:

  1. Make sure you are reachable: Update your developer or business account contact email and notification settings.
  2. Review the questions in the Data Protection Assessment and engage with your teams on how best to answer these questions. You may have to enlist the help of your legal and information security points of contact to answer some parts of the assessment.
  3. Review Meta Platform Terms and our Developer Policies.

We know that when people choose to share their data, we’re able to work with the developer community to safely deliver rich and relevant experiences that create value for people and businesses. It’s a privilege we share when people grant us access to their data, and it’s imperative that we protect that data in order to maintain and build upon their trust. This is why the Data Protection Assessment focuses on data use, data sharing and data security.

Data privacy is challenging and complex, and we’re dedicated to continuously improving the processes to safeguard user privacy on our platform. Thank you for partnering with us as we continue to build a safer, more sustainable platform.

First seen at developers.facebook.com

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Resources for Completing App Store Data Practice Questionnaires for Apps That Include the Facebook or Audience Network SDK

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Resources for Completing App Store Data Practice Questionnaires for Apps That Include the Facebook or Audience Network SDK

First seen at developers.facebook.com

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Resources for Completing App Store Data Practice Questionnaires for Apps That Include the Facebook or Audience Network SDK

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Updated July 18: Developers and advertising partners may be required to share information on their app’s privacy practices in third party app stores, such as Google Play and the Apple App Store, including the functionality of SDKs provided by Meta. To help make it easier for you to complete these requirements, we have consolidated information that explains our data collection practices for the Facebook and Audience Network SDKs.

Facebook SDK

To provide functionality within the Facebook SDK, we may receive and process certain contact, location, identifier, and device information associated with Facebook users and their use of your application. The information we receive depends on what SDK features 3rd party applications use and we have structured the document below according to these features.

App Ads, Facebook Analytics, & App Events

Facebook App Events allow you to measure the performance of your app using Facebook Analytics, measure conversions associated with Facebook ads, and build audiences to acquire new users as well as re-engage existing users. There are a number of different ways your app can use app events to keep track of when people take specific actions such as installing your app or completing a purchase.

With Facebook SDK, there are app events that are automatically logged (app installs, app launches, and in-app purchases) and collected for Facebook Analytics unless you disable automatic event logging. Developers determine what events to send to Facebook from a list of standard events, or via a custom event.

When developers send Facebook custom events, these events could include data types outside of standard events. Developers control sending these events to Facebook either directly via application code or in Events Manager for codeless app events. Developers can review their code and Events Manager to determine which data types they are sending to Facebook. It’s the developer’s responsibility to ensure this is reflected in their application’s privacy policy.

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Advanced Matching

Developers may also send us additional user contact information in code, or via the Events Manager. Advanced matching functionality may use the following data, if sent:

  • email address, name, phone number, physical address (city, state or province, zip or postal code and country), gender, and date of birth.
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Facebook Login

There are two scenarios for applications that use Facebook Login via the Facebook SDK: Authenticated Sign Up or Sign In, and User Data Access via Permissions. For authentication, a unique, app-specific identifier tied to a user’s Facebook Account enables the user to sign in to your app. For Data Access, a user must explicitly grant your app permission to access data.

Note: Since Facebook Login is part of the Facebook SDK, we may collect other information referenced here when you use Facebook Login, depending on your settings.

Device Information

We may also receive and process the following information if your app is integrated with the Facebook SDK:

  • Device identifiers;
  • Device attributes, such as device model and screen dimensions, CPU core, storage size, SDK version, OS and app versions, and app package name; and
  • Networking information, such as the name of the mobile operator or ISP, language, time zone, and IP address.

Audience Network SDK

We may receive and process the following information when you use the Audience Network SDK to integrate Audience Network ads in your app:

  • Device identifiers;
  • Device attributes, such as device model and screen dimensions, operating system, mediation platform and SDK versions; and
  • Ad performance information, such as impressions, clicks, placement, and viewability.

First seen at developers.facebook.com

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