Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am confused by the news about smartphone privacy. First I read this week that Apple has a new privacy feature for iPhones. Then I read a story that big U.S. companies are working with the Chinese to bypass these privacy settings. And, finally, there is a piece today that says it is all a corporate battle with Facebook. I am worried about my smartphone privacy, not about these companies. Annette, Tiburon
Dear Annette: We hold the answers in our hand, but not quite! There is currently a secret string of numbers called an Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) on Iphones and a similar code, called an AAID on Android phones. Mobile apps do not have cookies, so instead an unique identifier tracks you across the apps you download, your purchase history, location and quote, “much more.”
In the next release of their software, Apple will provide IDFA controls for the apps you open. Meanwhile, as you noted, some companies are allegedly working with the Chinese to bypass it, like Procter and Gamble (the maker of Tide). A third viewpoint is that this is a high stake game to move the app business away from Facebook.
Suppose, like me, you buy Tide detergent. In bygone times that brand targeted women and ran lots of full page ads in magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens. The publisher of that magazine is now in an exclusive licensing relationship with Walmart, so we can imagine they could merge the address and zipcode of subscribers with other data bases, and send you promotions for Walmart. Data on the Internet works the same way, except that the IDFA is truly specific and granular- it is at the person (i.e., smartphone) level.
Ads and IDFA’s are the underpinning of our media, since we do not pay a subscription or license fee like users of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Instead, when we use search engines and email we pay with our eyeballs and attention. Our interests and browsing habits are commodities that Facebook, Google, and to a lesser extent Apple, sell to advertisers. Here’s a DearSmartphone post, from the summer, of how a grandma was “oversold.”
Don’t Leave A TRACE!
The point is that that the searches you make, the media you post, and the sites you click leave a breadcrumb trail about “you.” If I want to sell Tide detergent, it’s important to know whether you favor brand name reputation, as well as your age, marital status, and stage in life. For a fee, Facebook runs a Tide ad to viewers with these exact qualities. Really, does IDFA stands for “Identity Details Facebook Acquires?”
The good news is that you don’t have to wait for the release of new Apple software. There’s a setting on your Iphone where you can ‘sort-of’ opt-out today. Go to <Settings> then <Privacy> <Tracking> and make sure the toggle is off. While there scroll to the bottom of <Privacy> screen and you will reach <Apple Advertising>. Toggle off settings to receive Apple’s ‘Personalized Ads.’ But, note that they still intend to send ‘served ads’ when you search on the App Store or on Apple News and Stocks. Apple calls it “contextual information” and it speaks to Gabriel Nichols critique (cited above) that a discussion of personal privacy is also entangled with larger institutional interests.
Since we don’t have BBC like fees for the Internet, targeted ads are baked into our digital culture. Speaking of Target, one of the most often repeated stories about tracking was published in Forbes magazine in 2012. A Dad learned that his teen daughter was first-trimester pregnant, after she bought vitamins, or something similar at Target, the retailer. Target had unwittingly mailed the household coupons for expectant moms. In 2020, a Facebook employee, Colin Fraser, debunks this story, assiduously noting that the story was probably made up, and even if it did happen, the AI prediction model could not operate with such precision and accuracy.
Whether the story and pregnancy are true or false, it should rankle some curiosity and make you more aware and attentive online. Consider using cash instead of a trackable credit card, continue to delete cookies from search engines and preferably buy your Tide from a locally owned and operated store. Finally, spend some time exploring what the apps on your phone want from you and what you choose to give them.