When I turned on personalized ads (I had previously turned them off), Apple’s ad targeting information says I am included in segments based on my age (from my date of birth), my gender (which may be inferred if I have not told Apple), and location (based on my registered postcode). Apple also listed my interests broadly as 10 different categories for apps—including productivity, sport, news, and business. For movies, I am included in the Action and Adventure category, as well as Sci-Fi and Fantasy.
The company’s documentation also says that App Store “browsing activity” is also used to help determine ads that can be shown to you. “App Store browsing activity includes the content and apps you tap and view while browsing the App Store. This information is aggregated across users so that it does not identify you,” the company’s documents say.
This data has the potential to be extensive. “Everything is monitored and sent to Apple almost in real time,” says Tommy Mysk, an app developer and security researcher who runs the software company Mysk with fellow developer Talal Haj Bakry. In November, the Mysk researchers demonstrated how taps on the screen were logged when using the App Store. Their follow-up research demonstrated that analytics data could be used to identify people.
“The App Store is special because there’s no other option,” Mysk says. “There is no other choice. If you don’t like the privacy statement of Apple Music, fine. You can use Spotify—there are alternatives. To the App Store, there is nothing.”
The research has resulted in two class actions against Apple. Separately, France’s data regulator has fined Apple for its advertising practices. Apple spokesperson Shane Bauer says the company was “disappointed” with the French decision and plans to appeal. “Apple Search Ads goes further than any other digital advertising platform we are aware of by providing users with a clear choice as to whether or not they would like personalized ads,” Bauer says. “Additionally, Apple Search Ads never tracks users across 3rd party apps and websites, and only uses first-party data to personalize ads.”
Bauer adds that privacy protections are built into all its apps. “Identifiable information is never shared with third parties and is not used to track users across apps and websites,” Bauer says. “All data used for advertising purposes is disassociated from personal identifiers, and Apple Advertising operates on the basis of de-identified data.”
Apple says that during the first quarter of last year, 78 percent of searches in the App Store where people could have been shown ads were from devices that had personalized ads turned off—the “conversion rate” for advertisers is basically the same for personalized ads and contextual ads, it says.
Apple’s policy for Siri says that if you use the service, your requests are associated with a random identifier and not your Apple ID. Apple also produces “computer-generated transcripts of your Siri requests” to understand you better. The company says the random identifier it uses isn’t linked to any of your other Apple data, isn’t sold, and isn’t used to build a “marketing profile.”
How To Limit The Data Apple Collects
It’s possible to opt out of Apple showing you personalized ads in the App Stores, News, TV, and Stocks apps. If you want to turn off Apple’s personalized ads on iOS, you can do so by going to Settings > Privacy & Security > Apple Advertising and toggling off Personalized Ads. In this menu it’s also possible, if you have personalization on, to view the ad targeting information that Apple uses to show certain ads to you.
Two places where Apple uses your data for ads—the Apple News and Stocks apps—can have their individual settings tweaked to change the identifiers that are linked to you. Within Settings and then each app’s details, you can toggle on the option to reset identifiers that are reported to publishers.
In the Privacy & Security section of Apple’s settings, it may also be worth considering Analytics & Improvements. Within this setting, you can stop Apple’s collection of iPhone and iCloud analytics data, which it says are used to help it improve its products and services. If you want to get the data that Apple has on you, it can be accessed through the company’s download tool.
Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the civil rights and privacy group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, says Apple should do more to highlight its recently announced encrypted iCloud backups. “Many users don’t realize just how vulnerable iCloud data (including device backups and messages) are by default,” Cahn says.
Equally, it’s worth taking some time to review the permissions for your other apps and devices’ sensors in the Privacy & Security section. It’s possible to change your location settings, reviewing what apps can see your location and when; stop third-party apps, such as Facebook, from tracking you across your iPhone; and see what permissions you’ve given to which apps.