Apple to roll out awaited app tracking feature in ‘early spring’

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Apple in early spring will roll out a long-awaited privacy feature that limits companies from tracking users across different apps, the company said Thursday.

The App Tracking Transparency feature will require apps to get the user’s permission before tracking their data across apps and websites owned by other companies, limiting the reach of targeted ads. 

The feature will be rolled out in “early spring” with the release of Apple’s new iOS 14, the company said in a blog post on Data Privacy Day. Apple did not further detail the expected timetable for the release of the feature or the upcoming operating system. 

The feature will require apps to ask users to opt-in before allowing apps to track them across different websites. For example, if users decline, Facebook would no longer be able to target ads at users based on what that user searches on a Google browser.

“Some may well think that sharing this degree of information is worth it for more targeted ads. Many others, I suspect, will not, just as most appreciated it when we built a similar functionality into Safari limiting web trackers several years ago,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said Thursday at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference.

Cook did not specifically identify Facebook in his speech, but the two companies have been in a public feud over the impending update.

“The fact is that the debate over ATT (App Tracking Transparency) is a microcosm of a debate we have been having for a long time — one where our point of view is very clear. Technology does not need vast troves of personal data, stitched together across dozens of websites and apps, in order to succeed,” Cook said.

“If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform,” he added.

Apple first unveiled the feature over the summer, and it was slated to be launched in September. But the company later delayed the update, saying it would give developers time to update their systems and data practices. 

Tech advocacy groups widely hailed the feature and told Apple in a letter in November that they were disappointed about the delayed rollout

Facebook, however, has repeatedly criticized the feature. The company launched an ad campaign in December branding Apple’s planned feature as focused on profit, not privacy. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ramped up criticism of the update on a call with investors Wednesday discussing the company’s quarterly earnings report. 

Both Facebook and Apple reported strong earnings in the last three months of last year, with Facebook’s revenue up 33 percent from the same time last year to $28 billion and Apple up 21 percent to a record revenue of $111.4 billion. 

In Facebook’s announcement of its quarterly earnings, the social media giant said it faces challenges regarding ad targeting in the new year, specifically citing Apple’s new iOS 14 update that will launch the ad tracking feature. 

Despite Facebook’s continued attacks that Apple’s feature is about profit and not privacy, Apple has touted its anticipated feature as a helpful tool for users to have more control over their data privacy. 

Google has not joined in Facebook’s attacks over Apple’s anticipated feature, but on Wednesday Google posted a blog post addressing the app tracing feature. 

Google warned that app publishers may see “a significant impact” to their Google revenue on iOS after Apple’s new policy takes effect.

Updated at 12:46 p.m.

Tags app tracking Apple Data privacy Facebook Google Mark Zuckerberg
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