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Why the new iOS update is such a big deal

The long-awaited iOS 14.5 update is finally rolling out with a new privacy tool.

A person walking past an Apple store. John Smith/VIEWpress via Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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On Monday, Apple is rolling out a long-awaited privacy feature for iOS. The latest version of the company’s mobile operating system, iOS 14.5, will prompt iPhone and iPad users to opt out of tracking in apps that monitor their behavior and share that data with third parties.

This new feature is a significant step for user privacy, as it gives people more control over their mobile phone app data and how it’s used by companies, like Facebook and Google, to target ads. At the same time, the move has frustrated app developers and tech companies that have relied on the reservoir of user data for years, and who fear they’re likely to be cut off from it in the near future.

The biggest difference most people will see with the introduction of the new privacy tool, called App Tracking Transparency, is a pop-up that appears when you open an app that tracks you:


Since 2012, apps developed for iOS have used an Identifier for Advertising (IDFA) to conduct tracking across different websites and apps. Apps usually collect this identifier so they can connect the information about the user gathered through the app to information about that user gathered elsewhere, like on the web, in order to better target ads. Before 14.5, Apple mobile users were able to limit ad tracking through toggles deep in the software’s settings, but this newest update directly prompts users to approve and disapprove this tracking for every app.

With the App Tracking Transparency feature, however, apps will need users’ permission to access a user’s IDFA before conducting tracking, which could include collecting user data to sell to data brokers or linking a user’s app data with third-party data that was collected in order to target ads. These new rules, Apple has said, will also impact other app processes, including sharing location data with data brokers and implementing hidden trackers for the purpose of conducting ad analytics. Some ad industry experts believe a large number of users will opt out of tracking when the new app tracking transparency feature goes live.

The iOS 14.5 software update is considered a major win for user privacy and is expected to give iPhone users a much greater sense of the type of tracking that takes place in their devices (in fact, privacy advocates were frustrated that the tool wasn’t rolled out earlier). While Apple users had some control over ad-tracking in the past, it’s easier than ever for users to opt out of being tracked.

“They’ll see a simple pop-up that basically prompts them to answer the question of, are they okay with being tracked or not? If they are, things move on,” Apple CEO Tim Cook explained in an interview with Kara Swisher earlier this month. “If they’re not, then the tracking is turned off for that individual with respect to that specific app.”

At the same time, this new Apple feature has frustrated other technology companies that rely heavily on this data to support their web advertising businesses. Google has announced a number of changes to its Google ads systems following the announcement of the new Apple privacy features. The update has also led to a rather public fight between Facebook and Apple. Facebook has run a months-long media campaign claiming that Apple’s changes will hurt the personalized ads that support small businesses. The change is actually more likely to hurt Facebook, assuming many Facebook users opt out.

Apple has been running a campaign of its own, touting privacy and security as key features of its products, for years. Tim Cook, the company’s CEO, has long emphasized that Apple is not in the data business, a position that has increasingly put him at odds with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. App Tracking Transparency isn’t even the only big privacy update in iOS 14, which also includes “privacy nutrition labels” that encourage apps to provide explanations of their privacy that are easier to understand.

Aside from its privacy features, iOS 14.5 offers a few other reasons to update your software. For instance, you will now be able to set your phone to automatically download security updates, rather than remembering to do this yourself. New emoji options are available. You also now have the option to unlock your phone using an Apple Watch if the device’s Face ID cameras see that you’re wearing a mask.

The App Tracking Transparency tool won’t necessarily mean an end to all tracking, and Apple is already playing whack-a-mole trying to find and stop other workarounds for identifying your device. Still, this newest feature is a new and in-your-face way to remind users about the kind of data apps are seeking about them.

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