Doc Searls on Apple and Surveillance Advertising

Doc Searls:

Here’s what’s misleading about this message: Felix would have had none of those trackers following him if he had gone into Settings → Privacy → Tracking, and pushed the switch to off […].

Key fact: it is defaulted to on. Meaning Apple is not fully serious about privacy. If Apple was fully serious, your iPhone would be set to not allow tracking in the first place. All those trackers would come pre-vaporized.

For all the criticism Apple has faced from the ad tech industry over this feature, it’s fun to see criticism that Apple isn’t going far enough. But I don’t think Searls’s critique here is fair. Permission to allow tracking is not on by default — what is on by default is permission for the app to ask. Searls makes that clear, I know, but it feels like he’s arguing as though apps can track you by default, and they can’t.

Whether setting up a new phone or upgrading an existing iPhone to iOS 14.5 or later, when apps want to track, you will get asked, and the alert is modal, with no “Ask Me Later” option. You must choose “Allow” or “Ask App Not to Track”. There are no other options.

I think that’s very fair, both to apps that want to track, and to users, so they are given explicit control over this permission, even if they have never heard of this new iOS 14 feature before. It’s not hard to find the global preference to forbid apps from even asking for permission — which screen also shows you a list of the apps that have asked for this permission. On my iPhone, with quite a few apps installed, there are only four apps on the list: Instagram, MLB, MM Live (the NCAA’s March Madness app), and Twitter. So it’s not like I’m getting badgered. I like keeping this “Allow Apps to Request to Track” option on so I can see if a new app even wants this permission.

The key is that Apple isn’t disallowing tracking — they’ve given every user the ability to disallow tracking.

And Apple never would have given every iPhone an IDFA — ID For Advertisers — in the first place. And never mind that they created IDFA back in 2013 partly to wean advertisers from tracking and targeting phones’ UDIDs (unique device IDs).

IDFA was well-intentioned, but I think in hindsight Apple realizes it was naive to think the surveillance ad industry could be trusted with anything.

And why “ask” an app not to track? Why not “tell”? Or, better yet, “Prevent Tracking By This App”? Does asking an app not to track mean it won’t?

This is Apple being honest. Apple can block apps from accessing the IDFA identifier, but there’s nothing Apple can do to guarantee that apps won’t come up with their own device fingerprinting schemes to track users behind their backs. Using “Don’t Allow Tracking” or some such label instead of “Ask App Not to Track” would create the false impression that Apple can block any and all forms of tracking. It’s like a restaurant with a no smoking policy. That doesn’t mean you won’t go into the restroom and find a patron sneaking a smoke. I think if Apple catches applications circumventing “Ask App Not to Track” with custom schemes, they’ll take punitive action, just like a restaurant might ask a patron to leave if they catch them smoking in the restroom — but they can’t guarantee it won’t happen. (Joanna Stern asked Craig Federighi about this in their interview a few weeks ago, and Federighi answered honestly.)

If Apple could give you a button that guaranteed an app couldn’t track you, they would, and they’d label it appropriately. But they can’t so they don’t, and they won’t exaggerate what they can do.

See also: Nick Heer at Pixel Envy, whose take on Searls’s post is similar to mine.

Also see also: Steve Jobs on Apple’s privacy stance back in 2010: “Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data. That’s what we think.”

Sunday, 30 May 2021