In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Apple’s latest Safari update is designed to make it more difficult for Facebook to track users.
Timeline for US tech giants
- February 24, 2020
Apple said in a statement that its enhanced Intelligent Tracking Prevention helps block social media ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ buttons and comment widgets from tracking users without permission. The new software will also require apps to get user permission before using the Mac camera and microphone or accessing personal data such as user mail history.
The new feature is also designed to make it harder for social media platforms and online advertisers to track users using ‘browser fingerprinting’, a technique in which information is collected about individual devices to create a profile of a user.
The update was announced during a speech from Apple’s software chief Craig Feberighi at WWDC, an event used by Apple to showcase its new software and technologies for software developers.
“We’ve all seen these like buttons, and share buttons and these comment fields. It turns out these can be used to track you whether you click on them or not. This year, we’re shutting that down.”
As Feberighi introduced the new feature, he was accompanied by an onscreen image of a Facebook comment thread, leaving no doubt that the tool was designed with a particular social media platform in mind.
The battle of words continues
Feberigi’s comments, which were met by applause from the audience made up of some 6,000 developers, are the latest in a series of public criticisms of the social media giant made by Apple.
In March, Apple CEO Tim Cook criticised Facebook over the mishandling of user data and claimed that Apple did not engage in similar practices:
“We could make a tonne of money if we monetised our customers, if our customers were our product. We’ve elected not to do that … we’re not going to traffic in your personal life. Privacy to us is a human right, a civil liberty.”
In an interview with Vox, Mark Zuckerberg described Cook’s comments as “extremely glib”.
In 2010, former CEO Steve Jobs said that Apple “had always had a very different view of privacy than some of our colleagues in the Valley”.
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Will this make a difference to user privacy?
With 14% of internet users running Apple’s Safari according to figures from StatCounter, the move has the potential to make waves not just for Facebook, but for other companies that rely on user data to make money. Companies such as Google, which collects more information about its users than Facebook, may be affected, especially if other device manufacturers follow suit.
However, some experts are skeptical. GlobalData global telecom consumer services platforms and devices analyst Lynnette Luna believes the move will make little difference to Facebook in the long run:
“I think this is more about Apple continuing to position itself as the champion of privacy. How many people actually access Facebook via Safari? Facebook’s advertising revenue from mobile was 91% of its total advertising revenue in the first quarter and most people use the app. Apple’s new policy means that Safari puts a time limit on how long the cookie is active, keeping cookies available for 24 hours after a visit and deleting anything older than 30 days.
“Users of Google and Facebook tend to visit those sites every day so those users likely won’t be outside of the 24-hour window very often. So I don’t see this crippling Facebook in any way. But Apple have been very smart about positioning itself as the protector of your data. Apple has much to gain in regards to consumer opinion as questions are increasingly raised by consumers concerned about how Google users their information and exposes their private life.”
Facebook questions success chances of Safari
Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos hit back at the comments and implied that the new Safari software will not block all forms of tracking. He tweeted: “If this is about protecting privacy, and not just cute virtue signalling, then they should block all third-party [Java Script] and pixels.”
However, digital marketing analyst Kirstin Stone said that the new feature could make it harder for advertisers to target content at users:
“As a social media pro, I’m not thrilled about the loss of a substantial portion of user data. It’s going to be harder to target well, and advertising spends are going to inevitably go up as a result of less-targeted content. There’s been this major outcry against overly personal advertising, but I don’t know what’s worse for the consumer–ads that make you want to buy, or ads that you couldn’t care about. I know which one I’d prefer.”
Although keen to distance itself from the data-sharing scandal, Apple proved not to be totally immune. The New York Times reported that Facebook had data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 device makers, including Apple. The deals reportedly allowed device-makers access to Facebook user data.
Both Facebook and Apple have refuted the claims.