It is not unusual for the bosses of Apple and Facebook to be at loggerheads with each other over privacy. Back in 2018 Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg accused his Apple counterpart Tim Cook of being “extremely glib” for making scathing remarks about Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Weeks later Apple introduced privacy controls that hampered Facebook’s ability to collect user data via Apple devices.
Things moved up a notch at the end of last year after Apple revealed that app-tracking transparency would be installed as part of its latest system update. Until iOS 14.5 came along, apps like Facebook could automatically track what people were looking at on their phones and sell targeted ad space accordingly. The update was designed so users were asked their permission for the tracking to happen first.
Facebook responded to the move by taking out full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal accusing Apple of posing a threat to the “10 million businesses [who] use our advertising tools each month to find new customers, hire employees and engage with their communities”. Cook retaliated by tweeting that users “should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used”.
It may have looked like little more than a war of words between two rivals, but Facebook – which warned of the “headwind” posed by iOS 14.5 in its 2020 accounts – was right to be concerned. Since the update went live last month iPhone owners have been opting out of data tracking in their droves. According to Flurry Analytics, 85 per cent of worldwide users clicked ‘ask app not to track’ when prompted, with the proportion rising to 94 per cent in the US. Apple did not respond to requests to comment.
For an organisation like Facebook, whose entire business model is based around collecting, analysing, selling on and profiting from data about its users’ likes and dislikes, such numbers could be devastating.
“It’s a huge blow for Facebook,” says Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at ESET UK. “They have major issues when another huge tech firm such as Apple comes along and says privacy is important. When Apple is asking users not to track – and that language is important – if anything it’s sticking a couple of fingers up at Facebook.”
This strategy is important for a business that wants to position itself as being above the privacy concerns that have dogged the technology industry. Lawyer and data privacy specialist Heather Anson, director of Anson Evaluate, says that for a company that can make money from its hardware regardless of regulatory constraints, it’s reasonably easy for Apple to score points over its rivals by doing that. “Apple is very good at using these types of issues to make itself look better,” she says. “There was a case in San Bernardino where a guy shot his co-workers and the FBI wanted to get the log-ins to his iPhone. Apple said no because it would weaken security, but that was technically more of a publicity stunt than something that was legally binding, they could have handed it over.”
By taking this stance now, Anson believes, Apple is pre-empting strict data protection laws that have been mooted in US states including New York and Virginia as well as in the European Union. As with the EU’s Draft Digital Services Act, the US proposals, which are modelled on an existing Californian law, would require user permission to be given for data to be used. It is a carbon copy of what iOS 14.5 has already introduced.