Apple's anti-tracking iPhone feature 'functionally useless', claims study

Ios 14.5 App Tracking Transparency Hero
Ios 14.5 App Tracking Transparency Hero (Image credit: Christine Romero-Chan / iMore)

What you need to know

  • A new study claims Apple's App Tracking Transparency feature does not work.
  • According to Lockdown Privacy ATT makes no difference to the number of third party trackers or data being sent to trackers.
  • A scathing new study describes the feature as "functionally useless"

A new study into Apple's App Tracking Transparency feature, which was added to all of Apple's best iPhones with iOS 14 to let users opt-out of third-party tracking, claims the feature is "functionally useless."

The study was published in September, and its conclusion states:

Five months after its release, we tested ten of the top apps in the App Store to see if ATT succeeds in stopping tracking.Using the open source Lockdown Privacy app and manual testing, we found that App Tracking Transparency made no difference in the total number of active third-party trackers, and had a minimal impact on the total number of third-party tracking connection attempts. We further confirmed that detailed personal or device data was being sent to trackers in almost all cases. ATT was functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking, even when users explicitly choose "Ask App Not To Track".

You can read the full study and its methodology here, but the upshot according to LP is that "when it comes to stopping third-party trackers, App Tracking Transparency is a dud." In fact, Lockdown Privacy says its actually worse than that, because tapping 'Ask App Not To Track' may give users a false sense of privacy where users who might have otherwise been more careful let their guard down with thier data.

The group says the flaw lies in the fact the feature is based on "the honor system", and so its up to App Developers to be honest, but that apps have no incentive to be forthcoming "if all their competitors are lying."

The group says that Apple should take a harder stance on closed-source trackers, and should "come clean that App Tracking Transparency is a completely trust-based system, and possibly even rename the feature itself." Apple's support documentation currently states:

If you choose Ask App Not to Track, the app developer can't access the system advertising identifier (IDFA), which is often used for tracking. The app is also not permitted to track your activity using other information that identifies you or your device, such as your email address.

The study was picked up by The Washington Post, and Apple responded to the claims:

"Apple believes that tracking should be transparent to users and under their control," said spokesman Fred Sainz. "If we discover that a developer is not honoring the user's choice, we will work with the developer to address the issue, or they will be removed from the App Store."

The Post also stated that Apple said it was "reaching out to these companies to understand what information they are collecting and how they are sharing it" but that nothing appeared to have changed after several weeks.

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design. Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9