Get ready for a lot of pop-ups that…you might enjoy

Get used to seeing this pop-up, and millions of others like it:

Sometime soon — perhaps this week, perhaps tomorrow — Apple will turn on a simple feature that has the potential to shake up the very business model the Internet is built on: surprise surveillance. To users, it could seem like an endless stream of pop-ups, at least at first. To the technology industry, it might mark the moment a cold war turned into a hot war.

At a bare minimum, smartphone users everywhere — even those who don’t use Apple products — will see privacy and surveillance cast into the public eye like never before, and that’s a good thing. Third-party tracking of consumers might never be the same, and that’s a very good thing. What’s that? Well, every click you initiate on the Web is watched by dozens, hundreds, even thousands of companies you aren’t interacting with at the time. In fact, these third-party lurkers are the main revenue engine that drives much of the Internet. As I discuss in my recent pocast about the Original Sin of the Internet, this is a terrible business model, and a weak foundation on which to build a vital technology. This foundation just might start to crumble now, thanks to that little pop-up.

Many apps like Facebook track their users, even when they are doing things that have nothing to do with that app. So, if you’ve installed Facebook’s app, the firm likely knows when you are shopping on a random website for hotels or baby clothes. You are probably surprised by this, and that’s the point. Advertisers love lurking. They think it makes ads far more effective. Consumers find this creepy, and given the choice, most would not permit it.

Apple is about to give its users that choice. Well, more than that. Apple is going to *force* users to make that choice. When the new iPhone operating system is released, apps that track you this way will have to get explicit permission via the pop-up above. The default choice will be no; apps will have to persuade users to say yes. This switch from an opt-in model vs. an opt-out model will surely nudge millions of consumers out of this kind of surveillance advertising. Behavioral scientists have known for years, as have web designers who specialize in “dark patterns,” that default choices hold great power. I believe many businesses would not exist today but for such defaults. That’s why they are so concerned about Apple’s operating system update.

Various surveys have tried to measure the impact of Apple’s change, which the firm is calling App Tracking Transparency (ATT). Like this one, suggesting two-thirds of people will not allow such tracking. Judging by the fear, loathing, and press releases coming out of Facebook, the impact could very well be much higher.

The launch of ATT (which @Jason_Kint thinks will come at an Apple event Tuesday) has been cast as a Battle of the Titans between Facebook and Apple. Facebook has taken out full-page ads in newspapers and purchased 60-second spots on TV shows saying the change will hurt small businesses. That may or may not be true; at the moment, that impact seems hard to measure. The impact on Facebook, however, could be in the billions, if advertisers no longer believe their Facebook ads are creepy enough.

This is just the first battle in a coming war over consumer tracking by third parties — schemes that allow companies consumers are not interacting with to monitor their comings and goings.

Google has announced a program it calls Privacy Sandbox, and said it will eliminate third-party cookies, which allow firms to track Google Chrome users across websites. Instead, Google is creating something call Federated Learning of Cohorts, which will put users into anonymous buckets that advertisers can target instead.

It’s a welcome starting point for discussion, but if you are worried that Apple and Google might suddenly be dictating terms for most online advertising, you wouldn’t be alone. A set of state attorneys general are alledging Sandbox is anticompetitive. Meanwhile, the EFF calls FloC a terrible idea.

As expected, there are plenty of efforts underway to save the current surveillance advertising model. As Apple reins in use of its IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) that’s been used to enable app tracking, a set of Chinese companies are backing a standard called CAID (China Anonymization ID) which would enable the same kind of surveillance. Already, CAID has attracted interest from plenty of global companies, including Proctor & Gamble. Meanwhile, Snapchat is testing a different method called “probabilistic matching” that might be able to circumvent Apple’s ATT limits using big data. Apple says it will stop apps that evade the spirit of its new rules. Or perhaps, China will take the lead on creepy Internet advertising. We’ll see.

For now, a long-festering conflict between tech giants will soon spill over onto consumers’ smartphone screens, courtesy of that Apple permission pop-up. And if that kick-starts a robust debate about surveillance capitalism, that’s great. Firms will have to use old-fashioned customer service to persuade consumers to make their privacy-based bargains. Or, they’ll have to get them to pay cash. Or, they’ll have to pay consumers! Or, there will be new business models that don’t require thousands of sneaky, hidden, opaque relationships. That’s good.

Do your part. When you have the chance, refuse tracking unless you have a very good reason to permit it.

Want to read more? Apple’s fictional “A Day in the Life of Your Data” will be pretty eye opening for many.

“John and his 7-year-old daughter, Emma, are spending the day together. In the morning, John uses his computer to look up the weather, read the news, and check a map app on his smartphone for traffic conditions for a trip to the playground next to his daughter’s school. During the ride, there are 4 apps on his phone collecting and tracking their location data periodically in the background.16,17,18 After the data has been extracted from the device, app developers sell it to a host of obscure third-party data brokers that John has never heard of.16,17 Although the location data collected is claimed to be anonymous, user tracking allows data brokers to match John’s location history from these apps with information collected from his use of other apps.”

Reminds me of a video I did at NBC News a few years ago called “A Day in the Life of Your Data.”

Still confused? This video from the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern (@JoannaStern) is both funny and entertaining.

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About Bob Sullivan 1508 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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