Noyb: Activists Who Beat Facebook Denounce Apple for Tracking iPhone Users Without Consent | Technology


A woman walks past an Apple store in Taipei, Taiwan, on November 15.
A woman walks past an Apple store in Taipei, Taiwan, on November 15.DPA via Europa Press / Europa Press

Apple violates EU law by tracking iPhone users without their consent, according to the lawsuit it has filed the Noyb organization before the courts of Spain and Germany. According to this group, each terminal inserts a unique code into the terminals, called IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers), which allows Apple and all iPhone application developers to see how users behave without their knowledge or agreement. The Noyb group is chaired by the Austrian Max Schrems, 25, who was the promoter of the lawsuit against Facebook that culminated last summer with the ruling of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) that overthrew the main legal mechanism they use thousands of companies to send data from the European Union to the United States.

The IDFA allows Apple and all applications installed on the phone to track a user and combine information about online and mobile behavior. This identifier works, in practice, as a cookie. The cookies (cookies, in English) are text files that are installed on your computer when you visit a page. Some are essential for browsing, since they allow you to identify yourself without having to re-enter your username or password. Others tell the web what browser you are using, where you are connecting from or how you want to see the page. But many others serve to track navigation, drawing a valuable behavior pattern on the Internet for advertising companies.

The IDFA, in this way, becomes a digital license plate, as qualified by the lawsuit filed in Spain. Each user action can be related to this registration, and be used later to build a detailed profile about the owner of the mobile, about their preferences and their behavior. “We actually know very little about what Apple does with this information,” admits Stefano Rossetti, a Noyb attorney specializing in data protection. “The possibilities are endless.”

Thus, since EU legislation is “technologically neutral” and does not specify that it refers exactly to cookies, Rosetti considers that installing these types of files would require the user’s consent. Instead, Apple places these tracking codes without users’ knowledge or agreement. Nyob rejects, in any case, that these tracking codes are installed on mobile phones in the first place. “EU law protects our devices from external tracking,” explains Rosetti. “Tracking is only allowed if users explicitly consent to it. This rule, says the lawyer, applies regardless of the technology used. “The IDFA should not only be restricted, but permanently eliminated”, Rosetti highlights. “Smartphones are the most intimate device for most people and should be free of trackers by default.”

To disable IDFA for third parties, you have to go to system settings / privacy / advertising / personalized ads. The iOS operating system does not give the opportunity to see the IDFA, although there are free applications in the App Store that allow you to discover it. Google has a similar code, called AAID or GAID. There is also a Nyob lawsuit to curb its use, filed with the Austrian authorities, who are deciding whether to take up the case or refer it to their counterparts in Ireland.

Apple had announced in June that it was going to tweak iOS 14, the latest operating system available, so that third-party apps would have to ask for permission before accessing a phone’s IDFA. Last September, however, the company announced that it would delay the changes until 2021, “to give developers the time they need” until “early next year.”

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