Do you know what happens to your data on a typical day?

7 Apr 2021

Image: © Maria_Savenko/Stock.adobe.com

Ahead of its latest privacy update, Apple wants to inform users how their data might be tracked while they go about their daily lives.

While data privacy and ad trackers have been widely discussed in recent years, people can still be tracked by a number of sites and apps without even realising.

With a combination of websites, apps, social media companies, data brokers and adtech firms tracking users online and offline, a recent report in Strategy+Business claimed that the monetisation of personal data created revenue of more than $200bn in a year.

In an effort to combat this, tech giant Apple is preparing to roll out a new privacy update this year, which will prevent apps from tracking user behaviour online without permission.

Apple said the App Tracking Transparency feature will “require apps to get the user’s permission before tracking their data across apps or websites owned by other companies”. Under Settings, users will be able to see which apps have requested permission to track and make changes as they see fit.

Today (7 April), the company has also released information to give customers a better understanding of what exactly happens to their data in a typical day, highlighting how they might be tracked without realising.

It said that the average app has six trackers that gather user data and are often embedded in third-party code that helps developers build their apps.

“By including trackers, developers also allow third parties to collect and link data you have shared with them across different apps and with other data that has been collected about you,” said Apple.

While the trackers themselves are collecting the data, data brokers harvest this information to aggregate and clean it in order to build complete profiles of people, which can then be sold on for marketing and advertising purposes.

One data broker claims to offer data on approximately 700m consumers worldwide, creating consumer profiles with more than 5,000 data elements.

What does this mean for users?

This means that while you might expect companies like Facebook or Google to track what you do within their websites and the sites they own, you might not think about how your other daily interactions on the internet are not only tracked but linked together to create a more complete profile of you.

For example, if you decide to go for a walk in the park, you might check the weather online before you go. You might also go into your map app to check traffic conditions and you may check the news while you’re online.

This already means that a number of apps are now potentially tracking your location data in the background while you go about your business.

While the data from each app may be anonymised, if a data broker is able to collect enough data from different apps and connect the dots, they could be able to track day-to-day movements.

This can lead to more geotargeted ads. In 2018, The Boston Globe highlighted how exactly this works with an effective graphic, showing how easily targeted ads can show up on users’ phones simply by pinpointing their location.

Every additional interaction throughout a walk in the park, from playing game on your phone to taking a selfie with a filter could add personal data to the treasure trove that is ripe for mining from data brokers. Some apps will request access to more data than is necessary for the app to work, such as a keyboard app requesting location information.

While the data on its own may not seem particularly useful, it continues to fill in the details of your online profile, allowing for more targeted ads.

And while many companies have landed in hot water in recent years over how they process their users’ data, the hidden nature of certain trackers makes it difficult for users to spot. A simple walk to the park could cause users to add several pieces of information about themselves to an already extensive profile without realising.

With its next beta update, Apple plans to roll out App Tracking Transparency, which will enable users to see which apps have requested permission to track them.

As part of its latest update, the company will also give users the choice to block the Identification for Advertisers (IDFA) feature on Apple devices, which app developers use for targeted advertising.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com