One of the great novelties of iOS 14.5 was the inclusion of App Tracking Transparency. Apple proposed that control over which applications can or cannot follow users be, precisely, in the hands of users. However, the high percentage of adoption of this feature among those who use an iPhone would not prevent some alternative tracking tactics.
This is stated in the most recent report by The Washington Post. It indicates that some of the most popular apps on the App Store would use “stealth techniques” to collect information from Apple’s smartphone and share it with third parties. These data are mostly technical, but would serve to create “an image” of how and for what the iPhone is used, and at the same time generate identification patterns of the user in question.
Clearly, the research talks about fingerprinting; that is, the assembly of a computer’s fingerprint -in this case an iPhone- from very specific information. This involves working outside the bounds of App Tracking Transparency. At first glance, much of the data they collect seems irrelevant. However, by putting the pieces together and putting the “puzzle” together, developers and advertising companies could continue to track users without their consent.
The American newspaper worked alongside Lockdown, a company dedicated to the development of privacy software. It was in charge of analyzing ten of the most popular iPhone apps, while they were prevented from being tracked with App Tracking Transparency. Both iOS 14.8 and iOS 15 were used for the test. The results are interesting, but at the same time worrying.
IPhone apps keep trying to track users, despite App Tracking Transparency
The report indicates that three of the applications tested, the Subway Surfers games, Streamer Life! and Run Rich 3D, collected 29 data specific to the iPhone. Additionally, they were sent to an ad network called Chartboost, even though App Tracking Transparency was active. In all cases the information collected by each application was practically the same.
The list is extensive, but the apps registered the name of the device, the country in which it is registered, the telephone company used, the IP address, the available battery level, the total storage space and how much is free, the version of iOS, the type of language configured in the keyboard, and the currency, among several other elements.
Fingerprinting is against Apple’s rules, but that wouldn’t stop some developers from using it as a backlash to App Tracking Transparency. It is clear that connecting the dots to track a user through such technical information from an iPhone is much more complex than accessing their browsing data and other behaviors; but it is also clear that ad companies, or data brokers, would care enough to go to such a “hassle”. According to The Washington Post, the creators of the analyzed apps they did not give clear answers as to why and for what they collect and redirect so much information.
Johnny Lin, co-founder of Lockdown, was blunt about this situation. “When it comes to stopping third-party trackers, App Tracking Transparency is useless. Worse still, giving users the option to press a button that says ‘Request app do not track’ can create a false sense of privacy, “he said. And it’s not a statement to be taken lightly, considering that this is a former iCloud engineer; that is, he knows Apple well from the inside.