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What does App Tracking actually mean?

20th April 2021

Jacob Woolcock


App Tracking Transparency is a major new feature in the iOS 14.5 update and will probably be most noticed by it’s many, many pop-up messages in individual apps. These messages will ask if you’re okay for Apps to Track your activity, or if you’d rather they didn’t. But what does that actually mean – and are they are ramifications for you as a user?

This simple and easy-to-follow video will talk you through what this all means, what to do when the pop-up appears and will hopefully leave you feeling more informed and more empowered to make these important decisions about your privacy.

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If you’ve recently updated to iOS 14.5, you might be getting a lot of messages talking about App Tracking. If you’re not sure what that means, don’t worry, this is the video for you.

Okay, so here’s a popup that you’re likely to see a lot of now iOS 14.5 has been released. But what on earth does it mean? The first thing to know is that every device has something called an IDFA – that’s an Identifier for Advertisers. To make this easier to understand, imagine the device on screen now has the IDFA number ABC123 (of course, in reality, that number is a lot longer), and every device has its own unique number.

To make a bit more sense of this, let’s imagine a common situation – I’m using my phone one morning and I’m using some 3rd party apps to try and plan my day. I quite fancy going to the beach today, so if I’m using an app to get directions to the beach, then it’s possible that the app itself is collecting the data I’m giving it, like, for example, my current location, where I’m going, or the time of day I’m travelling. And then this can be sent back to the app’s server with a link to my IDFA number. That information could then be linked to other things I’ve done on my phone but in different apps. For example, sending a message to a friend, purchasing a book from an online store, playing a level of a game, or even just checking my emails. All of that information could be collected by third-party apps and that data could then be sent back to their servers using my IDFA number, which links it to my device.

So, despite coming from different apps, the data brokers who work behind the scenes to pull this data together can link it all using my IDFA number and they can use that data to build a really accurate picture of me as a user, as a consumer, and just generally as a person. That means they’ll know which beach I like to go to, what book I’m currently reading, and who I’ve been in contact with recently. They can then sell this data to advertisers and those companies can target adverts at me because they know what I like.

The surprising thing is, it’s not just one company doing this. In fact, on average, there are around 6 trackers per app, which is crazy when you think about how many different companies could have access to that information. Individually, it may not seem like much, but when you start pulling all of that information together, it’s quite surprising how much those companies can know about us.

So in essence, that single IDFA number can help bad actors build up a really thorough and detailed picture of who I am as a person and what my digital habits are. But, they can go even further than that. Imagine a book company has got a new novel out, and they see that I’ve been reading books. That means I could be a good customer for them. That book company then wants to get their advert in front of my eyes on my device. So the next time I open up an app that’s got an advertising slot in it, a really quick process will happen in the background, called an Auction. And those companies will bid to have their advert displayed to you as the user. Now the book company who knows that I like Sci-Fi books will be willing to pay a lot more money than a cat food company who doesn’t know if I’ve got a cat or not. That means the book advert will likely win, and that’ll be the advert that I see when the app loads.

You can see just how valuable that data collected earlier is, because that book company knows that I’m a potential customer, so that advertising slot is worth a lot of money to them. Of course, those companies will then want to be sure that they spent their advertising money wisely. They’ll then be able to keep an eye on your shopping in different apps to see if you’ve actually bought their book or not. By collecting more data linked to your IDFA in other apps, the data brokers will be able to report back to the company to tell them if you’ve made that purchase or not.

That’s where App Tracking Transparency comes in. So, one clever thing about these IDFA numbers is that they’re actually made by the software on your device. That means they can be changed, or even withheld at any time. So that means these new pop-up messages that you’re going to start seeing on iOS 14.5 and later are actually hugely important. You, as the customer, will be able to decide if you’re happy for a certain app to have access to your IDFA number or if you’d rather keep it a secret from that app. You can choose this on an app-by-app basis (not just as one setting for the whole device) and you can decide who you want to trust with your

data or not. Don’t worry if you change your mind – you can go into Settings, then Privacy, then Tracking, and you can change your preferences to allow or deny tracking to any app, at any time.

It’s a really big choice to make and it’s important that you know how it works before you just tap on any button to get rid of that pop-up message. This message will begin showing up in any app that collects data in this way, and by pressing the “Do Not Allow” button, you can cut off that link completely. This won’t affect how the app itself works, or even limit any functionality – it’ll just stop your data being used in the background.

A lot of advertising companies are getting quite worried about this new change because it could potentially mean they’ve got a lot less accurate data to sell on to other companies. I guess, now you have all the facts, it’s up to you to decide if that’s a bad thing or not.

I really hope you’ve found this quick explainer video useful. If you’ve got any questions or suggestions, do let me know in the comments down below – and don’t forget, you can always hit that like and subscribe button to get more videos from my channel.

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