How iOS 6 is tracking users and feeding information to advertisers

12 Oct 2012

The latest version of Apple’s operating system introduced 200 new features for iPhone users. One addition is a replacement for unique device identifiers (UDIDs) that allows advertisers to better track users’ activity, which is enabled by default.

Previously, following a data leak involving 1m UDIDs, Apple spokesperson Natalie Kerris said, “With iOS 6 we introduced a new set of APIs meant to replace the use of the UDID and will soon be banning the use of UDID.”

However, the end of UDID does not mean the end of tracking users’ information, as the new technology introduced with iOS 6, the operating system with the new iPhone 5, only makes this even more efficient.

Identifier for advertisers

Known as IDFA or IFA (meaning ‘identifier for advertisers’), this technology sends information on user activity to advertisers so they can better target their ads. Like UDID, IDFA does not identify an individual, just their device. It works like a cookie, tracking apps and web pages viewed by users. So, for example, if you frequently use your iPhone to visit a lot of car dealership websites, you might start seeing ads for cars.

IDFA is more effective as it follows users to the point of conversion – something advertisers were unable to track until now. This means advertisers will be able to analyse precisely what combination of marketing and user behaviour results in an actual sale (such as an app download or product purchase).

Opting out

Users can opt out of advertising tracking, as Business Insider helpfully explains, but Apple hasn’t made this straightforward. It is not found under ‘Privacy’ in the phone’s settings, but is hidden away under ‘General’, then ‘About’, then ‘Advertising’ – not a route a user is typically going to take to adapt their privacy settings.

The single setting in this menu is ‘Limit Ad Tracking’. This is switched to ‘Off’ by default, but by switching it ‘On’ users can stop IDFA from following their actions. This in itself is counter intuitive – ‘on’ means no more tracking – and, coming from a company that prides itself on an advanced user experience, I can’t buy that this is just an oversight on Apple’s part.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic