Image: Apple

Apple released iOS 14 without a new anti-tracking feature. This privacy feature will make it more difficult for app creators to surveil people online with digital ads. Upon even a rudimentary examination, the anti-tracker feature is ultimately a good, if not necessary, addition for users, but it will only work optimally if used by astute, well-informed users.

As is often the case with the $2-trillion company, this news came quite close to when it was scheduled to be released to the public: The anti-tracking feature announced at WWDC 2020 was expected to pop up as new free software for the roughly 1 billion iPhone. It was also designated to be included in the operating systems for Apple’s other popular iOS devices, iPads, and Apple TVs.

Apple’s decision will have a direct effect on the much-anticipated release of iOS 14, as it was widely discussed that iOS 14 would automatically block tracking. However, the release of the new iOS 14 privacy feature has been pushed back to early 2021, Apple announced.

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Here’s how the anti-tracking feature works: Using a unique code for every iPhone worldwide, the feature makes it mandatory for app makers to ask users for permission to track, collect, and share their data, which is used to reveal their online behavior. When users are presented with an option to be surveilled or not, the latter is likely the favored response.

For app creators, it couldn’t have come at a worse time, because that industry is struggling and battling the coronavirus-imposed recession. Without the ability to track users, opportunities for data collection and sharing will be curtailed, this will severely affect the revenue the free apps receive through curated, targeted advertising.

If users of iPhones and other Apple devices figure out how to change their privacy controls on their own (which, again, isn’t good news for the developers of those free apps), each user is automatically given a tracking code.

Just behind Google, Facebook runs the second-largest digital ad network. Facebook has warned how the new privacy feature in iOS 14 would impact its business partners’ ability to market and monetize through ads.

Apple reiterated its continued commitment to protecting customers’ privacy, calling it “a fundamental human right,” and stressed it is merely a postponement of the new anti-tracking tool, not a sign it may distance itself from the company’s promise of privacy.

Still, critics warn that by postponing the release of the iOS 14 anti-tracking feature Apple has empowered those who use online tracking for digital surveillance. If a user isn’t savvy enough to understand what he or she is agreeing to (or not) when they attempt to download a free app, it can be detrimental to those users, who can be tracked even if the user had no intention of allowing it.