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TikTok tried to secretly track iPhone users, but Apple blocked the sneaky attempt

Published Jul 7th, 2021 9:20AM EDT
Apple TikTok
Image: Apple

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Apple in May rolled out iOS 14.5, an unusually large update for a mid-cycle release. Aside from some new Siri voices and support for AirTags, the new update also introduced Apple’s App Tracking Transparency framework. The new feature lets users control the degree to which apps can track their activity. The feature naturally left some developers concerned and recently led to a showdown between TikTok and Apple.

What is App Tracking Transparency

Apple now lets users decide if they want to allow applications to track their activity across other apps and websites. The feature is a boon for privacy advocates but also makes life tougher for advertising platforms. Note that platforms like Facebook and TikTok can charge a premium for more targeted ads. And given that iOS users tend to be a more coveted group of smartphone users, TikTok and Apple were on something of a collision course.

Why developers like TikTok are wary of Apple’s App Tracking feature

Because app tracking is now opt-in, many users are choosing to keep it off. In fact, reports suggest that as many as 96% of iOS users are opting to keep app tracking turned off.

Some companies tried a workaround

Though not allowed by Apple, TikTok, and other companies, in response to iOS 14.5, tried tinkering with a new advertising framework called device fingerprinting which can gather user data.

The Wall Street Journal relayed the following back in April:

The company has joined forces with dozens of Chinese trade groups and tech firms working with the state-backed China Advertising Association to develop the new technique, which would use technology called device fingerprinting, the people said. Dubbed CAID, the advertising method is being tested through apps and gathers iPhone user data. Through the use of an algorithm, it can track users for purposes of targeting ads in a way that Apple is seeking to prevent.

Some of the bigger companies involved in CAID testing include Proctor & Gamble, Deloitte LLP, and TikTok.

Apple axed the workaround

The Financial Timespoints out

that CAID put Apple in a tough position. It could either look in the other direction allow app developers to take advantage of it. Or, it could reject it out of hand and risk “the ire of Beijing.”

Apple, though, stood its ground. Apple rejected TikTok app updates that included CAID in new builds.

“The Chinese app ecosystem was collectively baiting the bull with CAID, under the theory that Apple couldn’t afford to ban every major app in the market,” Alex Bauer, head of product marketing at adtech group Branch, told the Times.

“Apple called their bluff, and seems to have reasserted control over the situation by aggressively rapping knuckles on early adopters before the consortium gained any real momentum,” Bauer added.

As we saw with the Fortnite saga, Apple certainly isn’t afraid to take a principled stand even if it means tangling with prominent app developers.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.