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To Be Tracked or Not? Apple Is Now Giving Us the Choice.

If we had a choice, would we want to be tracked online to see more relevant digital ads? We are about to find out. On Monday, Apple released iOS 14.5, one of its most anticipated software updates for iPhones and iPads in years. It includes a new privacy tool, App Tracking Transparency, which could give us more control over data sharing. Here’s how it works: When an app wants to follow our activities to share information with third parties such as advertisers, a window will appear on our Apple device to ask for our permission. The app must stop monitoring and sharing our data if we say no.

A pop-up window may sound like a minor design tweak, but it has thrown the online advertising industry upheaval. Most notably, Facebook has gone on the warpath. Last year, the social network created a website and took out full-page newspaper ads denouncing Apple’s privacy feature as harmful to small businesses. A big motivator, of course, was that the privacy setting could hurt Facebook’s business. (Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has disputed that Apple’s policy will hurt his company’s business.) if we choose not to let Facebook track us, it will be harder for the company to see what we are shopping for or doing inside other apps, and makApple’s policy will hurt his company’s business.'”


“This is a huge step in the right direction, if only because it’s making Facebook sweat,” said Gennie Gebhart, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit. Ms. Gebhart and other privacy experts said Apple’s new feature might not be enough to end shady tracking on iPhones. She and others said it could push developers and ad technology firms to find loopholes to continue tracking people differently.

I tested early iOS 14.5 for about two months to acclimate to the new privacy control and other new features. Only a few developers have pushed the pop-up window to the public, so my findings of how well the privacy feature works have been limited. However, I found that iOS 14.5 also has other significant new features. By default, Siri can work with a music player other than Apple Music, such as Spotify. That’s a big deal: The voice assistant wasn’t convenient to use with other music services in the past. Here’s what you need to know about Apple’s new software.

It’s essential to understand how tracking works inside apps. Let’s say you use a shopping app to browse for a blender. You look at a blender from Brand X, then close the app. Later, ads for that blender start showing up in other mobile apps, like Facebook and Instagram. Here’s what happened: The shopping app hired an ad-tech company that embedded trackers inside the app. Those trackers looked at information on your device to pinpoint you. When you open other apps working with the same ad-tech firm, those apps could identify you and serve you ads for Brand X’s blender.

Let Us Help You Protect Your Digital Life

Apple’s new privacy feature will let you decide whether you want that to happen. Now, when you open some apps, you will be greeted with a pop-up window: “Allow [App Name] to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?” You can choose “Ask App Not to Track” or “Allow.” When we select “Ask App Not to Track,” two things happen. The first is that Apple disables the app from using an Apple device identifier, a random string of letters and numbers assigned to our iPhones, and is used to track our activities across apps and websites. The second is that we communicate to the app developer that we don’t want our information to be tracked and shared with anyone in any way.

That seems easy enough. But No. 2 is where things also get slightly complicated. Ad-tech companies have many ways to follow us beyond Apple’s device identifier. For example, advertisers can use a method called fingerprinting. This involves looking at seemingly innocuous characteristics of your device — like the screen resolution, operating system version, and model — and combining them to determine your identity and track you across different apps. It’s difficult for Apple to block all tracking and fingerprinting happening on iPhones, privacy researchers said. That would require knowing about or predicting every new tracking method an ad-tech firm uses.

“From a technical standpoint, there isn’t a whole lot that you can do” to stop such tracking, said Mike Audi, the founder of Tiki, an app that can help you see what other apps are doing with your data. Yet, the privacy change is still significant because it explicitly asks us for consent. If we tell apps that we don’t want to be tracked and keep doing so, Apple can bar the offenders from its App Store. The pop-up window also makes the privacy control far easier for people to discover, said Stephanie Nguyen, a research scientist who has studied user experience design and data privacy. IPhone owners could restrict advertisers from tracking them in the past, but the tools were buried in settings where most people wouldn’t look.

“The option was available before, but was it?” Ms. Nguyen said. “That’s a big shift — making it visible.” This week, all apps with tracking behavior must include the App Tracking Transparency pop-up in subsequent software updates. That means we will probably see a few apps requesting permission to follow us, growing as more apps are updated.

Overdue Features

Apple’s new software also includes two other interesting new features: the ability to use Siri to play audio with a third-party app like Spotify and quickly unlock an iPhone while wearing a mask. For many, these will feel long overdue. Siri has seamlessly worked only with Apple Music for music playback since 2015, which has been frustrating for those who want to use the voice assistant to play songs using other music apps. The change comes as antitrust scrutiny mounts over whether Apple stifles competition by favoring its app. You won’t have to change any settings to

To make Siri work with other audio servings. If you usually listen to music with a third-party app, such as Spotify, Siri will learn over time that you prefer that app and react accordingly. (Audio app developers need to program their apps to support Siri, so this won’t work if they haven’t done so yet.) If you always use Spotify to play music, you can say, “Hey, Siri, play the Beatles,” to start playing a Beatles playlist on Spotify. The other new feature helps solve a pandemic issue. For over a year, wearing a mask has annoyed owners of newer iPhones with face scanners to unlock the device. That’s because the iPhone camera has not been able to recognize our covered mugs. Apple’s iOS 14.5 finally delivers a mechanism to unlock the phone while masked, though it requires wearing an Apple Watch.

Here’s how that works: When you scan your face, and the phone determines it can’t recognize you because your mouth and nose are obstructed, it will check to see if your Apple Watch is unlocked and nearby. The Apple Watch, in effect, acts as proof to verify that you are the one trying to unlock your phone. To make this work, update your iPhone and Apple Watch software, then open the Settings app on your iPhone. Scroll down to “Face ID & Passcode.” In this menu, go to “Unlock with Apple Watch” and toggle on the option to use your Apple Watch to unlock when the image scanner detects your face with a mask. Next time you look at your phone at the grocery store, your watch will vibrate once and unlock your phone. Sweet relief.


I have always enjoyed writing and reading other people's blogs. I started writing a journal as a teenager and have since written numerous books and articles. My blog is a place where I can write freely about my personal interests and those of others.

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