Taking ActionConsumer Reports


Apple's new tracking setting means more privacy for users with one big drawback

Posted at 5:00 AM, May 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-06 09:07:28-04

Sometimes it feels like all you have to do is think about something, and you'll see an ad for it on your phone a few minutes later.

While it's not quite that extreme, companies are able to get all kinds of information from you based on what you search online and the apps you use.

If you don't want companies to know everything about you, a new setting Apple just rolled out could help.

Here's what we learned about the new setting from Consumer Reports Tech Editor Thomas Germain.

Q: What can you tell us about this new Apple tracking setting and what it aims to remedy?

A: A new Apple privacy setting will let consumers conduct more of their online lives without the tech industry peering over their shoulders. The setting will sharply limit the ability of apps to track what you do online and to share that information with others.The new tracking setting is being implemented in the newest iPhone operating system, iOS 14.5. It requires apps to ask iPhone users for permission before collecting and sharing data for targeted advertising.

That's a big shift in the way mobile apps collect data on their users, and it promises to cut off a key way consumer data is monetized on the Apple platform.

Q: That sounds really promising. Walk us through how to use this new setting on your iPhone.

A: It’s really easy.

  • You'll see a pop-up on your screen. Just tap "Ask App not to Track" or "Allow."
  • Say no if you want a bit more privacy. The app won’t be able to collect a special ID number linked to your phone that's used to tie together all of your behavior on various apps, combine it with other information about you, and target you with ads.
  • Allow tracking if you like targeted ads, want the app to make more money, and don't mind companies trading information about you.
  • You can tell your phone to say no automatically and avoid the pop-ups. Open your phone settings, select "Privacy," tap "Tracking," and switch the toogle off for "Allow Apps to Request to Track."
  • Apps get a few lines in the pop-up to explain why they want to track you, and they may pitch you even more details before the new setting shows up.
  • You may not see the pop-ups immediately. Apps are allowed to choose when they show it to you, but they aren't allowed to track you until you say yes.

Q: Will this really stop all personal data from being collected? No more tracking?

A: Not quite. Tracking isn't going away entirely. Apple itself collects a great deal of information on how consumers interact with apps and ads on its devices, and the company will be providing more of that data to advertisers, with certain privacy protections. However, privacy advocates - including the ones here at Consumer Reports - believe that it’s a tremendous step in the right direction, maybe even a watershed moment. With platforms increasingly cracking down on tracking and new laws coming into play, the data free-for-all is hopefully coming to an end.

Q: How will the move away from tracking change our online experience?

A. A move toward more privacy will have some big ramifications. For one, you may start to see different kinds of advertisements. That shift will be far more apparent in mobile apps, but less data floating around will affect the ads you see on other parts of the web, too.

Instead of targeted ads based on who you are and what you do online, you’ll probably see more ads based on the content you’re looking at, which are called contextual ads—for example, an ad for running shoes in a weight loss app. Contextual advertising becomes a lot more attractive.

Advertisers pay less for contextual ads, though, which means some app developers will have a harder time making money. That will mean a shift in the business model of iPhone apps.

You'll see fewer low-quality apps with questionable monetization channels. Gaming will likely be particularly affected, an arena where developers often pump out clones of popular apps filled with tracking technology and ads to try and make a quick profit. You may even start seeing more premium paid apps and content in the long term.

Q: So it won’t be completely without some tradeoffs?

A: That’s right. Advertising insiders say Apple's new tracking setting is a win for consumer privacy, but it could come at a cost. Ad targeting fuels the open internet. It's what makes apps free. If Apple’s efforts are truly successful, you may have to start breaking out your wallet more often.