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Apple sued over ‘pervasive and unlawful data tracking’ in App Store controversy

Despite positioning itself as a pro-privacy tech company, Apple has been accused by iOS developers of behavior that “should raise many privacy concerns.” It all relates to the ads on the App Store, and the way usage data is allegedly shared with Apple even when the user has turned off analytics sharing and personalized recommendations.

The Twitter account Mysk, which is run by a pair of devs in Canada and Germany, posted a thread last week warning that, if you’re using the App Store app in iOS 14.6, “every tap you make” is recorded and sent to Apple. This happens regardless of user preferences and settings, the devs claim. Apple has several toggles designed to reduce tracking, but the developers say that “opting-out or switching the personalization options off did not reduce the amount of detailed analytics that the app was sending.”

In a follow-up by Gizmodo, the developers found that several other apps, including Music, TV, Books, the iTunes Store, and Stocks all sent data to Apple despite the privacy toggles. (The Health and Wallet apps, however, didn’t transmit any analytics data at all.) The site reports that most of the apps that sent analytics data shared consistent ID numbers, which would allow Apple to track your activity across its services, the researchers found.

Apple was quickly sued in a California class-action lawsuit after the findings were made public. The suit alleges that Apple “violates state law in connection with its illegal recording of consumers’ confidential activity on its consumer mobile applications,” and charges that Apple is violating trust with “its pervasive and unlawful data tracking and collection business.”

The thread further points out that Apple’s alleged tracking seems ironic, given that iOS 14.5 saw the introduction of strict measures to prevent third-party devs from tracking users without consent. It’s worth noting that the iOS 14.6 operating system is more than a year old now, but the authors said they saw the same apps sending similar packets of data when running iOS 16.

This seems more of a question of intent than one of technology, given that the tracking was happening amid the implementation of high-profile pro-privacy measures. It’s hard to see why Apple would still have been harvesting usage data under iOS 14.6 and then backtracked in a later update without any obvious motivation.

Indeed, if anything Apple has shifted its business model in the opposite direction since the heady days when App Tracking Transparency was being trumpeted as the future of user privacy. The increasing prevalence of ads on the App Store–despite the store already being a phenomenal revenue driver for Apple–hints at a strategy focused on wringing out every drop of available income rather than prioritizing the user experience. And ads, of course, are far more effective when optimized with user data.