iOS Users Still Being Tracked by Facebook and Snapchat Even if They Opt-Out

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Apple rustled a lot of corporate jimmies back in April when it announced iOS 14.5, which would allow iPhone users to opt-out of having apps track their behavior across other apps and websites. When you fired up an app that tracks you, a simple on-screen prompt would ask you if you preferred to be tracked or not, and according to news reports most people did indeed opt-out of this seemingly intrusive situation. However, the situation is not quite as black-and-white as some users thought it was, according to a new report by the Financial Times, as apparently Facebook and Snapchat are still tracking users who opted-out, but with some caveats.

Here’s the rub: Apple’s rules prevent companies from acquiring individual users data that specifically identifies a single device, but it’s OK if they acquire data that is anonymized and aggregated with other devices, according to an analysis of the report by Macrumors. Therefore, it appears your phone is still sending tracking data to Snapchat and Facebook, but they just don’t know it’s your phone. This is actually in agreement with text on Apple’s website, which you can see below.

The Financial Times notes that Apple is allowing this situation due to “an unacknowledged shift that lets companies follow a much looser interpretation of its controversial privacy policy.” So it seems as if Apple  said, “You cannot track an individual that is identifiable,” and these companies responded by saying, “Ok, we’ll just collect information from groups of users that are randomized, and show them customized ads.” Call us naive, but like a lot of people we assumed that when we said we didn’t want to be tracked, we meant at all, not even in groups, or even randomized.

Still, Macrumors notes that Apple hasn’t explicitly approved these app behaviors, therefore it seems like it is tacitly allowing them. The website also notes that “Snapchat investors were told that the company plans to share data from its 306 million users, including those who ask the app “not to track,” with advertisers so that they can gain “a more complete, real-time view” of the success of ad campaigns.” Call us purists but this seems to fly in the face of what the phrase “do not track” means to most people.

This also isn’t the first time this issue has come up, as back in June the Financial Times reported that ad firms had found workarounds for Apple’s new policy. As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of wiggle room around the word “tracking,” so companies devised new methods to capture data for ad tracking without being directly in violation of Apple’s policy. For example, Macrumors wrote at the time, “Some adtech groups, used by thousands of developers, believe that looser “probabilistic” methods of user identification, which group users by behavior, are allowed under Apple’s rules, since they rely on temporary, aggregated data rather than creating unique or permanent device IDs.” For its part, Apple responded to FT by saying it will remove apps that don’t support the users’ choice when it comes to tracking, but it wouldn’t comment on the difference between “tracking” and “probabilistic matching.”

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