Mobile

Here’s what Apple’s new app tracking tool could look like

iphone apps

Apple has sent developers flurrying to find tracking alternatives since it began rejecting some apps that take advantage of your device’s UDID, or unique device identifier, to track your behavior. But now it seems Apple is gearing up to offer a solution of its own.

Just a few days before Apple kicks off WWDC 2012, its annual developers conference, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the iPhone maker is developing a new app tracking tool that would provide developers with useful information, while protecting users’ privacy more than the UDID approach.

The WSJ doesn’t have any details on what Apple’s new tracking tool could offer — other than saying it could be announced within the next two weeks — but it’s not hard to fathom a few guesses (more on that below). Apple, of course, isn’t commenting on the report.

Apple announced last Summer that it would be deprecating UDID-based app tracking (at the time I argued that doing so would cure plenty of privacy headaches), and a few months ago it began rejecting some apps that used the IDs to track users improperly.

It made sense for developers to rely on UDIDs initially: Unlike cookies, which are used on web browsers to track user activity, Apple’s device IDs are permanent, and users can’t block their transmission to third parties. Developers need tracking capabilities to see how users interact with their apps, and mobile ad firms use tracking to target users with relevant ads.

But with privacy concerns on the rise, Apple is being forced to come up with a more secure solution. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that Path, Instagram, and a plethora of other apps got in hot water over accessing your address book data (among other personal information).

Based on conversations with developers over the past year, and inferences from simply looking at the deficiencies with the UDID tracking approach so far, here’s what I’m expecting from Apple’s tracking tool:

Opt-in tracking + toggle switch: The biggest problem with UDIDs for user tracking is that consumers don’t actually know their behavior is being tracked. That’s great for developers, since it means they can get useful data on just about everyone, but it leaves most consumers in the dark. Apple could fix a majority of its privacy issues by simply making consumers aware that their behavior could be tracked, having it turned off by default, and offering a simple way to toggle the tracking on and off.

Stricter developer rules: By taking control of the app tracking process, Apple will be able to better keep developers in check. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple made it clear to developers that they could lose tracking privileges if they abused the tool. (Apple could still just reject apps outright, but a more granular tool could allow Apple to keep money-making apps available sans-tracking.)

Per-app tracking: Just like how iOS 5 handles notifications on a per-app basis, Apple could offer the ability to tweak tracking by individual app. This one’s a bit of a stretch, but considering just how much is on the line if Apple doesn’t implement user tracking properly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a pro-consumer addition.

There’s likely plenty more Apple has up its sleeves, so chime in below with other tracking features you’re expecting. Or, if you think Apple shouldn’t be supporting tracking at all, tell us why.

Photo via Bonnie Brown/Flickr


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