Apple IDFA Updates – What it Means for Privacy

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Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) feature went through significant changes in 2021 following the release of iOS 14.5. It was a big win for users focused on online privacy and company transparency. 

Essentially, personalized ads can now be a thing of the past, and it’s down to the user to decide if they’re willing to be tracked via apps and devices.

It caused Facebook to declare war on their fellow tech giant as it limits their ability to conduct business. They claimed it would decrease the company’s 2022 sales by about $10 billion. Not something to brush off easily.

“Every business starts with an idea, and being able to share that idea through personalized ads is a game-changer for small businesses,” Facebook wrote in a blog post in February 2021. “Limiting the use of personalized ads would take away a vital growth engine for businesses.”

Here’s the lowdown on Apple’s IDFA changes, and what it means for iPhone users’ privacy.

Add an extra layer of privacy to your Apple devices with a VPN.

What is an IDFA?

An identifier for advertisers (IDFA) is a unique, randomly generated device ID that is assigned to users. It’s like a cookie for a device rather than a web browser, and it can notify companies when a user interacts with their ads. (It’s a solution for apps that have no support for cookies in the first place.)

IDFA is solely for Apple devices. Android Advertising ID (AAID) or Google Advertising ID (GAID) is used for other platforms. However, they’ve recently followed Apple’s example by allowing the user to “opt out of interest-based advertising” starting in late 2021. 

Google notes, “As part of the Google Play services update in late 2021, the advertising ID will be removed when a user opts out of personalization using advertising ID in Android settings.”

So, IDFA is used for serving ads, specifically to Apple devices.

Apple IDFA 2021 Changes

Apple released operating system updates for the iPhone and iPad in April 2021. iOS 14.5 and iPadOS 14.5 require that app developers explicitly ask for permission to track users’ behavior across Apple’s App Store and the internet.

(It’s worth mentioning that Apple released iOS 15 in September 2021, building upon the privacy features released in the previous iteration.)

To check for yourself:

  1. Navigate to the Settings menu, and tap Privacy.
  2. Tap Apple Advertising.
  3. Tap the Personalized Ads switch to turn on or off.
  4. For good measure, back out and tap Tracking
  5. Ensure Allow Apps to Request to Track is also switched off
  6. You’ll also be able to find any apps which have previously asked for permission here.

It notes that the setting will: “Allow apps to ask to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites. When this is off, all new app tracking requests are automatically denied.”

It’s easier than manually denying multiple apps, but you can also do so if you’d prefer. 

What These Changes Mean for iPhone Users’ Privacy

It should lead to fewer ads that “follow you,” and it means that services like Facebook will find it more difficult to track your data across multiple apps on a single device. That has to be seen as a net benefit, even if you’ll have to deal with random ads as a consequence. 

(After all, it won’t stop ads from appearing on your iPhone or iPad. Instead, it limits targeted ad campaigns that are based on your personal information.)

Many users prefer not to be tracked due to privacy concerns, rather than issues deriving from the quality of the ads they’re shown. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation noted the positives as they gave their thoughts on Facebook’s “laughable” campaign against Apple:

Allowing users to choose what third-party tracking they will or will not tolerate, and forcing apps to request those permissions, gives users more knowledge of what apps are doing, helps protect users from abuse, and allows them to make the best decisions for themselves.

They go on:

This new feature from Apple is one more step in the right direction, reducing developer abuse by giving users knowledge and control over their own personal data.

Of course, Facebook claims that the changes to Apple’s ad tracking policy will cost the company $10 billion in 2022, although it seems like there is little they can do to stop users from switching off in droves. (To give some sense of scale, Meta shares dropped by 26% following the news.) 

The same is true for smaller app developers, as advertisers and marketers will no longer be able to freely track a user’s mobile habits and precisely target their online movements as long as they’ve opted out.

If you wish to double down on privacy, using an iPhone VPN is the next step a user should ideally take. While Apple stops apps from tracking your browsing history, a VPN will do the same for any browser you visit.

Protect your personal data and online activity with NordVPN.

Potential Reasons Behind the Changes 

Apple has continued to push ahead with a privacy-focused agenda, which makes sense given they’re in the business of selling hardware and software, rather than data. 

The trade-off is seen in the high RRP for Apple products, which are often significantly more expensive than the similarly specced competition. 

They may have noted that privacy and user data are far more important for the average consumer than they were even a decade ago and that the majority of people would prefer not to give up their data for advertising purposes.

Their stance has been replicated across their entire portfolio of products, making it easier to keep online marketers at arm’s length. Advertisers are likely to adapt to the new landscape, but it’s still a win for personal privacy.

Take a statement released with the release of new privacy protections in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterey, and watchOS 8:

Privacy has been central to our work at Apple from the very beginning.

Craig Federighi , Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering

Craig goes on to say, “Every year, we push ourselves to develop new technology to help users take more control of their data and make informed decisions about whom they share it with. This year’s updates include innovative features that give users deeper insights and more granular control than ever before.”

New features include Mail Privacy Protection, which “helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email and masks their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.”

In other words, it offers some of the features you’d expect from a quality VPN provider.  

Final Thoughts

The majority of users have been receptive to IDFA changes, and with good reason. Research suggests that 70% of IOS users shared their IDFA with app publishers before the update. It’s estimated that this number will drop to 10% – 15%.

It’s unsurprising, and the average iPhone owner is clearly more interested in privacy than being served advertisements that are more relevant to their interests.

Any development which gives the user more control is welcomed from a privacy perspective, even if it’s clearly worrying for any business dependent on serving targeted ads via platforms like Facebook/Meta or Google.

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