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Apple Allows Tracking of iPhone Users (Again) and Buries Opt Out Function

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Apple iOS 6 devices include a do not track function but it has been reported as very difficult to find. (Image: Apple)

At the end of September, new users of the iPhone 5 or Apple's new operating system (iOS 6) might have noticed that the method by which advertisers had the ability to track you for targeted ads was not working. It has since been shown to be back on again and the feature provided to opt one's self out of tracking is shocking difficult to find.

In late September, Robert Hof wrote in Forbes that it was an advertisers' nightmare to find Apple's identifier for advertisers, a random number assigned to devices but not personally identifiable, was down:

Without being able to identify users–or more accurately, their phones–they can’t track whether those ads produced a sale or other “conversion” such as an app installation. And they may not to spend a lot on iOS ads until they can do that again. “It’s crucial for the advertising market,” says Ravi Kamran, CEO of the apps marketing platform Trademob, which discovered the problem. “It drives the whole ecosystem.”

Business Insider reports today that other Apple decisions may have given users tracking-free experiences for the last few months as well. But as Jim Edwards writes for the publication, this comes to an end now with "more effective than ever" tracking technology. Edwards explains that the "identifier for advertisers" allows companies to monitor the sites and topics you're browsing to see whether you're taking the advertising bate.

CNET reported in September that Apple had planned to include a "phone-based version of Do Not Track" function that would allow users to actively prevent advertisers from targeting them. Here's what Apple had to say about it at the time:

"iOS 6 introduces the Advertising Identifier, a nonpermanent, nonpersonal, device identifier, that advertising networks will use to give you more control over advertisers' ability to use tracking methods. If you choose to limit ad tracking, advertising networks using the Advertising Identifier may no longer gather information to serve you targeted ads. In the future all advertising networks will be required to use the Advertising Identifier. However, until advertising networks transition to using the Advertising Identifier you may still receive targeted ads from other networks."

So the first thing to recognize is that advertisers will need to get used to using the Apple identifier, which means even if you switch off tracking, you may still be targeted. Adrian Kingsley-Hughes for ZDNet also points out that Apple doesn't require apps use this identifier to target ads, which could result in further tracking from that avenue as well.

Business Insider reported that being able to opt out of tracking though is pretty tricky. Here's what Edwards writes of Apple's best efforts to keep you trackable:

  • iOS 6 comes in a default "tracking on" position. You have to affirmatively switch it off if you do not want advertisers to see what you're up to.
  • The tracking control in iPhone's settings is NOT contained where you might expect it, under the "Privacy" menu. Instead, it's found under "General," then "About," and then the "Advertising" section of the Settings menu.
  • The tracking control is titled "Limit Ad Tracking," and must be turned to ON, not OFF, in order to work. That's slightly confusing — "ON" means ads are off! — so a large number of people will likely get this wrong.

"It's a really pretty elegant, simple solution," Mobile Theory CEO Scott Swanson told Business Insider. "The biggest thing we're excited about is that it's on by default, so we expect most people will leave it on."

Some have gone on to express concern over the fact that the identifier claims to not include personally identifiable information. The Apple identifier for advertisers replaces Apple's Unique Device Identifier, which raised privacy concerns in the past.

"I need them to tell me why it's not identifying because as we've seen from a lot other 'non-identifying' pieces of data, they can identify you quite easily," privacy expert Sarah Downey with the software company Abine said to CNET. Downey also questions whether the opt out of tracking will still collect your information to build databases that could then be used in targeted advertising.

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