Busted: Apple caught tracking iPhone users… again

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Apple iOS6

Another day another issue with an Apple product. Sigh. Except maybe you should hold off on that sigh, because this one’s serious. Apple has, once again, been caught tracking iPhone users.

In April 2011, analysts at a UK security conference discovered that iPhones and iPads running iOS4 had been secretly tracking their users’ every movement. Apple then denied that it was tracking users, although it did so without directly addressing the evidence brought forward by the security company.

Now it has emerged that Apple has started tracking iOS6 users so it can target them through a new tracking technology called IFA or IDfA.

The technology has, in fact, been around since June. Mobile app engagement specialist Apsalar calls it “great news for the mobile app advertising industry” and a “better alternative to the UDID”. A UDID, is the unique, indestructible serial number that every iOS number comes with. It’s also what developers were using to track people — and what Apple stopped them using in the wake of the last tracking scandal.

IFA is definitely in iOS6 — in fact that Apsalar blog post we linked to earlier mentions the fact that it’s sanctioned by Apple as one of the pros of IFA — but, as Business Insider notes, it’s definitely not listed among the features on the iOS6 page.

IFA stands for Identifier for Advertising and is sort of like a persistent cookie which works across apps and publishers. According to Business Insider, it triggers as soon as you enter a site on your browser or use an app. The IFA is passed on to an ad server. The advertiser now knows what site you’re looking at and can send you a targeted ad.

It also allows advertisers to track you all the way to “conversion”, in the form of an app download for instance. That’s big news for advertisers and gives them a much more serious measure of their success than they could otherwise hope for. What it won’t do however is track you as an individual person. Your device is just part of a series of aggregate data points.

While tracking is turned on by default, it is at least possible to turn it off in iOS 6, although not necessarily easy.

To turn off tracking, go to the settings menu. Look under “General”, then go to “About” and then “Advertising”. Look for “Limit Ad Tracking” and turn switch it to On. It might seem a little counter intuitive but it makes sense when you think about it. You have to turn the limiter on to turn the ads off. Simple.

Given the large number of steps and the fact that Apple hasn’t exactly been shouting from the rooftops about the new technology, it’s likely that most iOS 6 users will end up being tracked.

“It’s a really pretty elegant, simple solution,” Mobile Theory CEO Scott Swanson told Business Insider. “The biggest thing we’re excited about is that it’s on by default, so we expect most people will leave it on.”

At this point, the Fandroids are probably leaning back with smug smiles on their faces. Woah there cowboy (or girl). You Android device also tracks you according GPS location, Wi-Fi hotspots the phone has encountered, and the device ID.

That said, it’s always given you the option to opt out.

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