Is Apple doing enough to stop ad trackers? Mozilla has concerns.
On Monday, Mozilla launched a petition calling on Apple to change how it lets marketers track customer iPhones to serve up relevant ads. At issue is the unique ID Apple creates for iPhones and iPads; the so-called “identifier for advertisers” (IDFA) can let a marketing firm track your phone’s activity on the Apple App Store and Apple News, by recording which ads you tap or which apps you download.
Tracking is intended to help companies serve up customized ads to potential buyers. However, the IDFA itself doesn’t reveal any personal information about who owns which iPhone.
Still, if you find the tracking creepy, you can turn it off via Settings > Privacy > Advertising and toggle “Limit Ad Tracking” to off. Here, you can also reset that identifier in case you’ve been tapping on or downloading some weird stuff.
“When Limit Ad Tracking is enabled on iOS 10 or greater, this Advertising Identifier will be replaced with a non-unique value of all zeros to prevent the serving of targeted ads,” Apple says in its support page.
However, Mozilla argues that many iPhone customers have been left in the dark about ad tracking and how to stop it. “The bad news: Most people don’t know that feature even exists, let alone that they should turn it off. And we think that they shouldn’t have to,” the Firefox developer said in a blog post.
“That’s why we’re asking Apple to change the unique IDs for each iPhone every month,” the company added. “You would still get relevant ads —but it would be harder for companies to build a profile about you over time.”
So far, Apple hasn’t commented on the petition. But the news has sparked debate among internet users about whether Mozilla has a point —or if it’s misinforming the public. AppleInsider calls Mozilla’s petition “misguided and unneccessary,” while others say they prefer to receive relevant rather than random ads.
Privacy researcher Serge Edelman told PCMag he actually doesn’t have a problem with Apple’s approach to the advertising IDs. “Apple already does a pretty good job: if users select ‘limit ad tracking’ from the privacy settings, that prevents apps from getting the ad ID altogether, which is even better than resetting it periodically,” he said in a Twitter direct message.
The situation is different for Android. Back in February, Edelman published research showing how thousands of Android apps can create permanent records on their users, even when they try to opt out from the tracking. Google pushed back on some of Edelman’s findings, but noted that the company is constantly reviewing apps for privacy violations.
Nevertheless, Mozilla claims the bigger problem is that tech companies are opting users into the ad tracking, when they should be asking for consent first. “If Apple makes this change, it won’t just improve the privacy of iPhones —it will send Silicon Valley the message that users want companies to safeguard their privacy by default,” the company said in its blog post.
Whatever you think of the debate, it does shine a light on a little-known function that limits ad tracking on iOS. Learn more about opting out of ad tracking here.