Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Apples have been changing the world since before they gave Newton a concussion in 1667, or since even Eve had to get one heimliched out in the Garden of Eden. Earlier this year, Apple announced a seismic shift in the world of mobile technology: to require iOS users to give companies permission to track their activity on their phone. But why is giving users this choice causing such an outrage among tech companies? And why is the story focusing on profits instead of doing what is right?
Let's talk about where and how advertising makes its money, why presenting users with this choice matters, and why the reporting seems to be so one-sided.
The ugly foundations of tech riches
To start off, it's important to state that advertisement is an essential tool for small tech companies. Providing consumers with information and options through well-targeted ads is not a problem, and is in fact beneficial to a well-functioning society. However, the lengths to which some ad networks will go to learn ever-more granular details about your life IS a problem.
While this seems commonsense, the internet has grown and flourished on the back of an ugly truth. All business requires money to run, and tech largely been built on the profits of advertisement. That is, advertisement targeted at consumers by collecting their most intimate fears, wishes and desires through an unaccountable, monstrous, and sprawling surveillance apparatus.
Data harvested from users and their habits makes advertising to them incredibly profitable. Mobile phones, more than any technology that came before them, have provided advertising companies clarity into some of the most intimate details in our lives - creating a flood of profits unprecedented in human history. Today, this data is considered to be more valuable than oil.
Most people know the ways the data you post can be exploited and leveraged to provide advertisers a rich set of your habits, preferences, and personality. Every sports team you like is a data point that tells advertisers what cities you may want to visit. The TV shows you follow give insights into your political leanings and what cool fan merch you want on your knick-knack shelf. The contact list you share to "find other people" let advertising companies visualize your social network and connections.
This is visible, and taken for granted. In truth, the insights advertising companies gain into your life drill deeper than what you willingly divulge. Among other practices, a huge amount of data is collected by apps tracking your activity when you're not even using their app: Where you go; What links you click on other apps; What you post on other websites.
Up until Apple decided to ask users whether they want the apps on their phone monitoring their activity even when not using the app, apps were tracking your activity everywhere on your phone. For example, if you use a convenient Google log-in link to sign into your favorite game on your phone - Google can collect the data on what you do in that app. Let's say you tag a photo on Pinterest as #paris - Google can see you are interested in either terrible wall art or travel to France. If you send a message to one of your friends using an insecure messaging app, Facebook might be able to see how many people leave you on read. These data points can be bundled and sold as a profile to an advertising agency, who can then show you an ad for romantic travel to the City of Love the next time you read an article on Reddit - you lonely heart, you.
The wealth of data and the depth of private details available to advertisers from this quilt of your activity is hard to imagine. In aggregate, advertising companies have built an entire dystopian surveillance society in the depths of their web servers, spying and monitoring your every movement and action you take online. And all this for no other reason than to sell your hopes, fears, and desires as a product. You are the commodity that advertising networks sell.
That is the truth of the majority of the tech and advertising industry. It does not create wealth. It harvests it from our data. That has been the truth since the early days of the internet. And it has spread unheeded into the deepest and most intimate parts of our lives. The tech industry has profited from the cancer that is the surveillance of every member in society. And they don't want to lose that access to you, or to your habits. Because to them, it means losing everything.
The consequences of what Apple did
The only reason anyone has consented to be a part of this system is because by the time they knew about it, it had been in place for years. Passively, we all assumed that it had to be that way - and no one imagined how bad it was.
We have been held captive by this opt-in system of corporate espionage. So Apple did the unthinkable. instead of assuming every user of their devices was A-OK with this state of affairs, they just asked them: are you OK if this app you are using spies on what you do elsewhere?
The results have sent shockwaves throughout the advertising world, although they should have surprised no-one. Apple took the most valuable advertising market - of high-income, high-spending iOS device users - and gave them the choice whether they would like to be a product sold by advertising companies. Out of the 70% of iOS users that have installed the update prompting the question, less than 33% have consented. And that is despite the rampant threats and misleading messaging provided to users on apps that misuse personal data.
The public has spoken. We do not want our lives to be sold for pennies. Corporations should not have access to any information other than what we choose to give them, and them alone. Under the guise of "advertising keeps the internet open," they have abused the already generous insight into our personal lives, and they are reluctant to let it go.
Profits over people
The anger in the advertisement industry is palpable from the reporting the Wall Street Journal published on the subject. They frame the whole article as if giving users the choice to fork over their data and forcing tech giants to ask for permission before spying on every aspect of our lives is just super, duper hard for them. Not once does the article comment on the users' right to privacy, choice, or alternatives for these tech giants.
The article specifically points out Facebook's data collection strategy as relying heavily on cross-app tracking. This change, which has been in effect just over a month, has apparently already led to a lack of data for Facebook's enormous data harvesting engine, and affected the quality of its advertising tracking. If this is true, then it shows the granular and up-to-date data that Facebook relies on for advertising - and it raises the question, just how intimate is their Audience Network in our lives?
I know my friends pretty well. Well enough, at least, that I know what sorts of gifts to buy them at Christmas - even if we haven't spoken for months, or years. Imagine the type of data that Facebook is collecting in its Audience Network if a month's worth of restrictions on the small fraction of people that use its platform on iOS worldwide is already affecting "the quality" of its ad targeting. I don't need to know what my friends are doing every minute of the day to know what they would like...why does Facebook?
So who wrote this article?
Who wrote this article, so bereft of care for user privacy and choice? Indeed, who would frame individuals trying to scrape back the few bits of privacy we have as a problem? Although this article was published in the Wall Street Journal, it is notable that the Wall Street Journal is owned by Dow Jones & Company - which is, in turn, owned by none other than News Corp itself.
News Corp - infamous for its inflammatory, jingoist, yellow television news networks - is a sprawling network of media companies. These companies - like Facebook - heavily rely on audience numbers and advertising to maintain Rupert Murdoch's massive wealth. Sorry, I mean, to remain profitable and provide high quality media. (Someone explain to me how to delete the other sentence? I'm just so darn bad with computers).
This is why the WSJ provides such a one-sided coverage of their story. User choice is irrelevant; stock prices depend on profits. Their profits depend on users not having a choice. And anything that threatens their profits must be crushed - not negotiated with.
It is clear that our privacy must be protected, and that it will not be not easy. I, for one, am extremely happy to use an iOS device. The apps that have collected my data for so long are not wholly shut out from doing so - as much as I would prefer that. They simply cannot track my activity across other apps unless I choose to allow them. And after all, they are the most profitable companies in the world, with profits eclipsing entire countries - surely they could learn to live within their means. I do not mind if their profits fall to the size of slightly smaller countries' GDPs, if it means that my and your right to privacy will be protected.
To repeat, there is nothing wrong with advertisement. It is an essential tool for small tech companies to grow. However, framing giving the consumer the choice whether or not to be spied on as a problem is not acceptable.
Apple may not be perfect, and there are plenty of reasons to criticize their corporate practices. However, in this one matter, I will gladly choose an iOS over an Android device. It's the free market at work - and don't I get to choose, as the almighty consumer?