Apple to push ahead with controversial privacy feature opposed by Facebook and others

Apple’s Craig Federighi tells The Independent that he believes concerns about danger to ad industry are misplaced

Andrew Griffin
Friday 20 November 2020 11:00 GMT
(AFP via Getty Images)
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Apple says that it will press ahead with a controversial privacy feature that has set it against companies including Facebook.

Responding to a letter from a host of privacy campaigners, the company said that it is fully committed to the new update and would be rolling it out early next year.

Apple software chief Craig Federighi told The Independent that the feature and the company’s support for privacy is a “core value”, and that the change grew out of a longstanding, philosophical commitment against excessive data collection.

He insisted that the feature would eventually prove “better for even the people that are currently, at times protesting those moves” because they raise trust in the apps and devices that those developers and advertisers require to work.

The new feature – called App Tracking Transparency or ATT by Apple – allows users to opt out of having their data collected and aggregated as they move between apps. Users’ phones have a unique identifier that advertisers can track across their activity on their iPhone, but the new feature will ask them if they want that to happen, and such tracking will be banned if they do not explicitly opt in.

The tracking feature caused significant controversy among advertisers and the companies who work with them, who argued that it could undermine their businesses. Critics have included Facebook, which said that it would have to turn off some of its features in response to the planned update.

The ATT feature had been intended to arrive alongside iOS 14 when the iPhone operating system was released in September. But Apple postponed the roll-out until early next year so that it could give developers the time they needed to fully integrate the technical aspects of the feature, which could cause some significant problems for some apps.

That led to a letter from a range of privacy advocates and campaigners – including Amnesty International and the Electronic Frontier Foundation – to write to Apple in support of the feature ahead of its planned release.

Apple said in response that it “remain[s] fully committed to ATT and to our expansive approach to privacy protections”. “We developed ATT for a single reason: because we share your concerns about users being tracked without their consent and the bundling and reselling of data by advertising networks and data brokers,” Apple said in the letter, signed by Jane C Horvath, its senior director for global privacy.

The letter also disputes two arguments made by the opponents of ATT: that it represents a threat to the way to the internet works that would burden small businesses, and that Apple favours itself in the implementation. Ms Horvath argues in the letter that advertising that respect privacy was “standard until the growth of the internet” and that the feature “applies to all developers equally, including Apple”.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Federighi said that while such features had drawn particular attention recently, they were a continuation of a commitment to privacy that has been a part of Apple “since the beginning of the company”. He pointed to the fact that Steve Jobs had marketed the Apple II in the late 1970s by pointing to the fact that it would allow users to secure their own information on floppy discs and have control of their own data.

The feature was also a continuation of a variety of other controls that have been added to the iPhone and other devices in recent years with the aim of protecting users’ privacy, he said. Recent updates have added the option to only share certain photos with an app rather than the entire library, for instance, and a feature that shows a coloured light when the camera or microphone is being accessed – the new update’s opt-in message will be similar to those when it shows to users.

Mr Federighi argued specifically against the idea that such features could damage advertising companies and those industries that rely on them, which includes online news organisations that are funded by displaying ads. He said that parts of the ad industry had made similar arguments when it introduced its anti-tracking features in its Safari web browser, and that they had not been borne out.

“We introduced intelligent tracking prevention, several years ago, and at the time, parts of the ad industry were saying that the sky was going to be falling in and that their business was going to be destroyed by the fact that they couldn't track everyone from website to website to website,” he said.

"Well, in fact, if you look at what happened to the industry, that didn't happen at all, and yet we also protected user privacy."

As well as criticism from developers and other companies who argue that the new feature could damage the advertising industry, some have argued that it may be dangerous to allow Apple to enact such significant changes to the way the web works. The new feature comes amid other accusations that Apple has unfairly abused its power, including in its rules on the App Store.

Mr Federighi said that customers still had the choice of whether to use devices made by Apple or other companies, and noted that in most markets his company is still not the largest manufacturer. As such, Apple represents a choice that people can opt not to make, he said, likening the policy to the introduction of safety measures in cars.

“If we sell cars with airbags, and we decided to put airbags in our cars before someone else did, and customers want to buy those, I think it's great that we've provided that that choice,” he said. “We're not waiting for someone to require we do it, we're we're making that part of what it means to use our platform.”

Mr Federighi said that in some cases users will be offered other choices, but in others competitors will follow. When Apple introduced privacy protections in Safari some had said the feature would be “risky”, he said, but customers have eventually demanded them in other browsers and they have become more standard.

“Because we've shown customers they should expect those kinds of privacy protections, a customer start to demand them and the rest of the industry starts to follow," he said. "And we'd love to see that in many other ways.”

Mr Federighi said that the delay to the feature was the result of technical issues raised by developers who feared that users opting out of ad tracking could cause significant problems for the way their apps work, rather than any ongoing disputes about the policy behind the new feature or arguments over whether it should go ahead. Some developers had voiced concern that “because we have so much tracking built into ever facet of our system, we can’t live up to what the user asked us to do” when they turn it off, he said.

Apple does not intend to make any immediate changes to the way the privacy protection features work in the future, he said. “But of course, we're going to watch and see what happens and try to make sure that we can keep the ecosystem healthy" and changes could be made in the future, he noted.

He pointed to the introduction of a new tool called SKAdNetwork which was introduced specifically to allow developers to track when an ad had led to a sale of the product being marketed, which is a key metric for many advertisers. “We created a framework for doing that in a privacy-protecting way,” he said, and future updates could bring more ways to allow the ad industry to “improve their ability to do effective advertising while preserving privacy, and we want to work technically on solutions to make that more and more effective”.

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