As far back as 2016, Apple introduced search ads to the app store. The searches that produce these are tracked, with data collected by Apple to serve “contextual” ads in its apps. Topics and categories of stories read, publications followed or subscribed to, and which apps have notifications turned on: all is tracked.
Apple’s privacy in choices
Perhaps there is no need to worry that Apple knows users read the Guardian, and it may be convenient to be recommended Jay Rayner’s latest podcast. But some data can be more personal, like Apple knowing the pet name you can use for your partner, or the name of the alarm that wakes you up for work. These are not paranoid suggestions, but examples of the data on the devicepp send to Apple via Siri and dictation.
In theory, all information about a user is anonymous, associated with a random identifier, not an Apple ID. The advertising system does not use a personal profile, but data from a user’s Apple account and Apple’s other services to determine which ads to display. In addition, users can opt out of analytics when setting up an iPhone, or in Settings (although the user is warned if doing so is to the great detriment of the quality of Apple-provided services). These are all marks in the “innocent” column, and Apple’s privacy is therefore upheld.
The results are smart, regardless. According to Apple, in Q1 last year, 78 percent of searches in the App Store were for apps that users would have been shown ads for had they turned on personalized advertising. The proposal is therefore that each iPhone user’s (anonymous) data is analyzed to save the effort of writing a search.
However, anonymity and data privacy standards have proven to fall short of Apple’s privacy marketing hype.
Unmysked: the apps that call home
In late 2022, a certain Tommy Mysk (of Mysk Co.) contested Apple’s privacy claims. Investigations by Mysk showed that the App Store app sent Apple real-time data about ads seen, how those apps were found, and even how long a user spent looking at an app. Similar tracking was observed in Apple Music, Apple TV, stocks and books. According to Mysk“the level of detail [collated] is shocking for a company like Apple.”
NEW: A third class action lawsuit filed against Apple cites our findings. This time, Apple is being sued for “flagrant violations of consumer privacy”
— Mysk 🇨🇦🇩🇪 (@mysk_co) 17 January 2023
More revelations followed. Musk discovered no difference in data tracking of a user who had opted out of data analysis compared to one who had consented. The final blow was the discovery that the analysis of data sent to Apple includes a permanent and unchangeable ID number (DSID). The DSID is directly linked to a user’s full name, date of birth, email address, phone number – Tommy Mysk said “knowing the DSID is like knowing your name. It is your one-to-one identity.”
The problem is twofold. On the one hand, there is an illusion of choice and consent that has been shattered. On the other, the broken promise of anonymity.
Apple has positioned itself as the most secure and private operating system for the phone, but the claims are questionable. Currently, it does not appear to sell or provide data to third parties, but it is, in business terms, an untapped revenue stream. If users stop buying Apple hardware as regularly as shareholders want, we may find that Apple decides to monetize the data assets collected on its privacy-friendly operating system.