Apple’s upcoming privacy update is making developers look hard for quirks

Zoom in / Social media apps on the iPhone are seen in this pictorial illustration in Warsaw, Poland, on December 17, 2020. Facebook has disabled several features in its Messenger app to comply with the new data usage rules that are currently in place in the European Union as part of the Electronic Privacy Directive. (Photo illustration by Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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App developers are exploring new, cryptic forms of user tracking to evade Apple’s new privacy rules, which threaten to overturn the mobile ad industry in the coming months.

In early 2021, an iPhone update will prevent apps from using advertising identifiers known as IDFAs without the explicit consent of each targeting user. Developers expect that more than two-thirds of users will block tracking when they see a popup appear inside their apps.

Some app makers say they plan to use invasive tracking technologies like “device fingerprinting” to get around the new restrictions – although doing so could result in them being kicked out of the app store if caught.

One mobile game developer said: “100 percent, everyone will try to get fingerprints, whether or not Apple enforces its rules.”

Privacy activists have welcomed Apple’s changes, but cautioned that the tracking can never be completely removed.

“There’s still tracing,” said Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights activist. “We’ll still see apps trying to do nefarious things. No matter what you do, you will have these bad actors.”

Facebook led the way in criticizing the change in Apple, issuing a series of press ads in December accusing Apple of depriving app makers of half of their ad revenue by removing personalization.

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Few other developers are willing to take a public fight with Apple, whose App Store acts as the gatekeeper to the $ 500 billion economy. But especially, the creators of some of the most popular apps on the App Store are concerned, given the importance of advertising as a means of revenue and distribution.

“The effect is almost impossible,” said the chief developer of a major mobile game.

“This is a huge, massive change,” said the head of another leading mobile game developer. “It is the biggest danger we face [as a company]… it could really affect us negatively. “

The developers are concerned that many in the advertising industry are still unaware of the scale of the upcoming changes. “Brands and agencies have no idea – they don’t have a complete understanding of where the ecosystem is headed,” said a policy executive at an app maker. “Technical mediators are forced to solve the problem.”

Under this pressure, some developers are, in desperation, considering new and more invasive tracking forms to be used, even if users deny their apps permission to use IDFA.

The device fingerprint can be used to recognize repeated visits from the same smartphone, even across multiple applications. Banned by Apple App Store rules but difficult to detect, this technology works by linking a range of hardware and software properties and configurations such as internet connections and battery or language settings and usage patterns.

Another way to track people between apps is if they use the same email address to sign up for different services and games. “Hashed emails”, where addresses are converted into a series of letters and numbers, allow companies to share user details without handing the individual’s email address to their partners directly.

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While it may be difficult for Apple to discover these technologies, the grip cost – and lost access to the world’s most profitable mobile storefront – can be prohibitive. “Do you want to play with fire?” One developer asked.

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Alexis Wells

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