Apple's Craig Federighi wants ATT to be a 'meaningful choice' for consumer privacy

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The development of App Tracking Transparency was performed in a way to give users "a meaningful choice" about their privacy, Apple software chief Craig Federighi explained in an interview on Monday.

Forming an important part of the iOS 14.5 update, App Tracking Transparency is a major privacy-focused feature that has Apple performing more promotion than usual for a software update. As part of its marketing push, Craig Federighi spoke to Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal in an interview about it and Apple.

The decision to create features like ATT is an obvious one for Apple, according to Federighi. "This is deep in our calculus about what is a good experience for a customer and what's healthy for the future of our industry, and the future of the world."

The decision to implement the feature was difficult, as it had to apply both to the users of Apple's platform, as well as developers that create apps for it.

"We needed to make sure both that the user had a clear understanding of the decision, and that we gave the developer an opportunity to explain themselves as to the purpose for which they were potentially asking to track," said Federighi. "And so the developer of course can present messaging even before they ask the system to prompt the user, and they also get a little area on the panel itself to explain that they're using this for presenting more effective ads. Or whatever the case may be."

On why Apple offers users the choice asking not to track instead of stricter terminology like "Do not track" in the prompt, the executive explains that it's due to the numerous ways a developer could still track a user, even if they explicitly say they don't want to be tracked.

"There are other techniques that developers over time have developed, like fingerprinting, there's a bit of cat and mouse game around other ways that an app might scheme to create a tracking identifier. And it's a policy issue for us to say "you must not do that." And so we can't ensure at the system level that they're not tracking. We can do so at the policy level."

Apple's policies include a threat to developers to be thrown out of the App Store if they go around Apple's back and use alternative tracking systems.

Federighi confirmed no Apple-produced apps will have the ATT pop-up "at this time," insisting there's no Apple app or service "that tracks" to share information with external parties like data brokers. "If we ever did do something that fits the definition of tracking, we, of course would have to show that prompt."

When asked about the need to create another popup, a concept that users are bombarded with regularly, Federighi "shares your frustration" with the interface element. Comparing it to popups on websites to confirm cookies will be used for tracking purposes, Federighi said Apple had to make it "a meaningful choice," one that was clear and "had an effect."

He acknowledges that people installing the iOS 14.5 update will see it a lot at first, but it will soon become a "pretty infrequent occurrence." Federighi suggests it's down to only needing to make the selection for each app once, and that it's possible some apps simply won't perform tracking that would require the notification in the first place.

On the subject of criticism from Facebook and the ad industry unhappy about ATT's implementation, Federighi takes the barbs in his stride.

"We've been on this road of improving privacy protections in our platform for really since the beginning of iPhone. Before that truthfully. And so, we're accustomed to initially panicked responses from some quarters. It wasn't surprising to us, I think, to hear that some people were going to push back on this, but at the same thing we were completely confident that it's the right thing to give users a choice here."

Federighi admits he doesn't know how much privacy factors into consumer buying decisions. "It's a value that's so deep in us. Personal information can be used and abused, and even weaponized in ways that can be really destructive," he offers, possibly in ways that may not even be apparent to the users.

The interview also meandered into covering some of the antitrust allegations leveled by Epic and other critics, where Apple supposedly has too much control over its own store.

"I think we've always felt that customers have a real choice in terms of what phone they want to buy, what ecosystem they want to be a part of. We think we're offering people a choice to buy into an ecosystem where there is a degree of curation, where there is protection for privacy, where there are certain standards. We don't think everyone's gonna prefer that choice."

When pressed on if Apple will be forced to lessen that control, Federighi doesn't know, admitting he believes Apple is "making the right choices now, we're always considering the right things primarily from a customer perspective.

"So long as we're keeping an eye on that North Star, I think we feel good about the course we're on.

On CEO Tim Cook's comments about probably not being in charge at Apple in ten years' time and the suggestion that Federighi was a possible replacement, he calls it "Insanity" and "that would be irresponsible."

In a brief series of questions to the end, he admits he's "a cord guy" rather than someone who relies on wireless charging, denied knowing anything about mixed reality headset software but that mixed reality had "potential," and if Cook refers to him as "Hair Force One" at all.

"Lord no, usually Craig."