Apple's anti-tracking privacy feature arrives in next iOS beta, launches in spring

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Apple commemorated Data Privacy Day with a new report about data tracking practices and by highlighting its efforts to stop them, including a new anti-tracking feature coming in the next iOS beta cycle ahead of a launch this spring.

Those efforts include the new App Store privacy nutrition labels, which debuted in December 2020, and the upcoming App Tracking Transparency feature that has been widely criticized by Facebook.

In its announcement ahead of Data Privacy Day on Jan. 28, Apple said that ATT will debut "with Apple's next beta update." The feature itself is a significant change to the Identifier for Advertiser (IDFA) tag that requires apps to explicitly ask permission before tracking users.

Initially due this year but pushed back into 2021, the feature will opt users out of ad tracking by default. Opening an app for the first time will throw up a permission dialogue box with two selections: "Allow Tracking" and "Ask Apps Not to Track."

The privacy affordance launches in "early spring," Apple says.

In addition to the ATT announcement, Apple also published debuted a new privacy-focused report and highlighted a talk that Apple CEO Tim Cook is set to give at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference in Brussels on Thursday.

The privacy report, titled "A Day in the Life of Your Data," is an illustrated guide to cross-website and -app data tracking used by various companies and data brokers. Along with detailing and explaining the practices, it also highlights some tracking statistics pulled from third-party sources.

For example, Apple notes that the average app has six trackers. The report adds that data is then collected and used to create consumer profiles with up to 5,000 characteristics. Despite the large amount of data, studies suggest that these consumer profiles are often inaccurate.

Additionally, Apple highlighted several of its policies and features that help cut down on ad tracking and other types of data harvesting. Some general policies include minimizing the amount of data collected, processing data on-device whenever possible, increasing user transparency and control, and keeping data safe through security practices.

The announcement highlights some of the praise that privacy organizations have given to Apple.

"Apple's nutrition labels require industry to be clear and upfront with consumers, and tools like App Tracking Transparency will help people to assert control over the invisible leakage of their data. With these commendable innovations, industry will finally feel pressure to change," said Gus Hosein from Privacy International.

Michelle Richardson, from the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that the changes "will help rebalance the ecosystem so that data collection and sharing is more transparent and tracking is no longer the default."

More information about Apple's practices, policies, and features can be found on a dedicated privacy website.

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