Amidst all the glitz of releasing a new mobile operating system and iPhone, Apple quietly updated their privacy policy. Why?


I first learned about Apple’s new privacy policy when I installed iOS 4 on my iPhone 3Gs. The same opt-in request popped up when I set up my new iPhone 4. You know the drill, if you don’t agree, everything stops right there.

I must confess. I was remiss and did not read all (okay, any) 45 pages of the privacy statement either time. But, I did make a mental note to find out what has changed.

Mobile ads

It seems the changes are required because Apple is getting into the mobile-ad business with their new development platform iAd. In this YouTube video, Mr. Jobs explains iAd and the following benefits:

  • Emotion + interactivity: Takes the best of online (interactive) and television (emotion) advertising.
  • Ads keep you in your app: You are not taken to a different web site.
  • Built into iPhone OS: Starting with iOS 4.
  • Apple sells and hosts the ads: Purportedly to keep quality high.
  • Developer: Retains 60 percent of revenues.

You have to admit, Mr. Jobs is one polished sales person. I was curious to find out what others thought, so I looked at the comment section. People expressed opinions ranging from complete disgust to it’s a great idea. I’m curious now. Let me know what you think.

Okay, that’s interesting, but why would mobile ads require Apple to change their privacy policy?

“Targeted” means retaining personal information

The following paragraph from Apple’s privacy policy explains what they intend to do:

“Apple and its partners use cookies and other technologies in mobile advertising services to control the number of times you see a given ad, deliver ads that relate to your interests, and measure the effectiveness of ad campaigns.”

For this to work, Apple has to profile opted-in users and pass that information along to members of their iAd Network. Google does something similar. Their version is called interest-based advertising:

“Google offers a range of advertising services through our AdWords and AdSense programs to show you the most useful and relevant ads online. These ads appear on Google’s sites and services, and on partner websites in the Google content network. Some ads are based primarily on your search queries or on the content of the page you’re viewing.”

Let’s get back to Apple’s new approach and see what they want to share.

Targeted information

According to the iAD web site, Apple will retain the following information and provide it to application developers and advertisers:

  • Demographics
  • Application preferences
  • Music passions
  • Movie genre interests
  • Television genre interests
  • Location

Apple also mentions that advertisers will get the following metrics:

  • Impressions
  • Clicks (taps) and click-through rate
  • Visits
  • Page views and pages per visit
  • Interactions (videos viewed, images viewed, etc.)
  • Average time spent per ad
  • Social pass-alongs
  • Conversions and downloads

Opt out

Both Google and Apple allow you to opt out of targeted advertising. This link to Google’s Privacy Center will explain how to opt out of their interest-based advertising. How to opt out of Apple’s iAd was a bit harder to find. It was buried in the privacy policy:

“If you do not want to receive ads with this level of relevance on your mobile device, you can opt out by accessing the following link on your device:”

Don’t make my mistake, that’s the letter O, not a zero. What may be upsetting to some is the next paragraph in the policy:

“If you opt out, you will continue to receive the same number of mobile ads, but they may be less relevant because they will not be based on your interests. You may still see ads related to the content on a web page or in an application or based on other non-personal information. This opt-out applies only to Apple advertising services and does not affect interest-based advertising from other advertising networks.”

What’s different with mobile devices

Targeting has been around for several years now. So, there must be something new that concerns privacy groups. There is: It’s the ability of mobile phone service providers to track a mobile phone. Actually, more to the point, how is that information being used?

It gets murky as to what can be done with geolocational information. IT legal authorities say the closest thing to a governing law is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). The problem with that is the law was passed in 1986, before most of us were online.

Not well-versed in legalese, I listened to Future Tense with John Moe. He recently aired “Geolocation, the law and you.” The audio file helps explain why a 24 year-old law is woefully inadequate to protect what most of us consider sensitive information.

What Apple wants to do

At first, I did not understand. Why would an app not needing location information still want the GPS turned on? After I watched Mr. Jobs iAd video, it became clear. In the near future, there will be two types of applications:

  • Applications that use geolocational services such as Google Maps.
  • Applications with built-in advertising that use geolocational services.

If you remember, location was one of the targeted metrics being retained by Apple. It appears that information is used to show near-by locations where the advertised product can be found.

Allow or don’t allow

I normally have GPS disabled on my iPhone, due to it being a significant drain on the battery. That used to be just one switch in the Settings. Now with iOS 4 it is more refined. iOS 4 allows you to choose which individual application can use Location Services:

If you have Location Services turned off and an application or application with embedded advertising needs it, the following window will pop up:

More questions than answers

Apple has now joined the list of those saying all targeted data will remain anonymous and does not identify individuals. I am not so sure it works that way. I wrote an article titled, “Electronic databases: What’s new with privacy concerns.” What I learned was supposedly anonymous databases weren’t that anonymous. Now adding locating information to the mix will make them less so. So, who is right? I am also curious about the following:

  • Is the GPS shut off when it is disabled in Settings?
  • Can the GPS be turned on without our knowing it?
  • Will the embedded advertising use cell tower triangulation if GPS is disabled?
  • If we choose to opt out of relevant advertising, will the not-so relevant ads still ask for current location?
  • What happens if the application itself needs Location Services, and it has an embedded ad that needs it as well?

Final thoughts

As you can see, there are many questions left unanswered. Yet, embedding advertisements in mobile phone applications is a game changer and not going away. What do you think about it?