How will your analytics team feel when they lose data on 70% of your iOS users in the next few weeks?

The IDFA (mostly) goes away with iOS14.5. That’s really only a problem for advertising, right? Wrong!

Back in June 2020 Apple announced the details of iOS14. The announcement literally freaked out the entire online advertising industry. Access for any iOS app to the ID for Advertising (IDFA) was to be made subject to the user opting in to being tracked. Moreover, the actual interface for asking the user that question was to be strictly controlled by Apple, with only a very small portion of the text customisable in any way. In case you’ve forgotten, you’re going to start seeing a lot of dialogs like the one below in iOS apps in the weeks to come, as iOS14.5 goes live and Apple finally starts enforcing its new policies.

This was an important decision from Apple, because the IDFA has been used for years to establish a 100% stable and unique identifier for a user across any and all apps on their iPhone. Unlike on the web, where a user could block or delete cookies, install ad-blockers and where logged-in identities (other than the identity platforms run by Apple, Google or Facebook) rarely straddle more than a small number of sites, the IDFA was the golden key to build rich behavioural profiles and orchestrate sophisticated marketing campaigns on the iPhone.

Yes, this was personal data tracking at a grand scale. Yes, it was invisible and intrusive for users. Yes, from any objective perspective of users’ having rights over their own personal data, Apple is 100% right to call a halt to it. In fact, most users would probably see it as long overdue, given how much Apple likes to sing it’s own praises in terms of being an advocate for the privacy of user data.

Here is the beginning of the sting in the tail: most of the testing and real-world data so far shows only 20%–30% of users giving tracking permission. Worried yet? No? You think this is only a problem for advertising? If so, read on!

There are lots of articles about the likely effects on the online advertising business from a lack of access to the IDFA on Medium, so I’m not going to rehash that theme again. Instead, I’m going to write about the possible unexpected side-effects of Apple’s approach to killing the IDFA.

The sting in the tail continues here: Apple doesn’t let app publishers simply ask users whether an app can access the IDFA. You can understand why; most users wouldn’t understand the question. Instead the iPhone forces the app to ask the user whether to turn tracking on or off within each app. It’s a one-time shot at glory; iOS doesn’t let app publishers keep asking users until they get the answer they want.

So what is the definition of “tracking”? The Apple definition is here. I’ll summarise it as follows: if your app shares any identifier for the user or the device with third parties who might use it for targeted advertising or advertising audience measurement purposes, then your app is tracking your users.

It sounds simple enough. Your analytics team doesn’t do analytics for ads, right? So what are the poisonous toxins in this “sting”-analogy? Let me give you three big ones.

  • Does your team use Google Analytics or Firebase in your iOS apps? And does your set-up let you see all that lovely demographic data like predicted age-ranges and gender data from Google? If so, you’re probably tracking! The same can likely be said of any other behavioural analytics or event or crash logging tool with inherent links to any advertising network, e.g. Yahoo! Analytics, etc.
  • Does your app use Facebook Pixel to help optimise your marketing campaigns bought via the Facebook network? Then you’re probably tracking.
  • Finally, does your app contain any third party audience measurement SDKs that capture unique identifiers for your users (whether the IDFA or any other identifier) so as to verify their presence and count up an audience size? From providers like Comscore? Then you’re probably tracking.

In all of these cases, and if you want to persist in these activities in your app, you’ll probably need to connect those SDKs to the tracking control from Apple. If that happens, you can say goodbye to 70%+ of your data when roughly that proportion of users say “no way” to tracking. Unless, of course, your app development team take up some of the mitigations I’m going to propose…but that’s for the next article about this on Medium!

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a lot of “probably” in the text above. Why all this uncertainty? It stems from the fact that the next chapter in this saga is a giant leap into uncertainty: how will Apple actually test each submitted app in the App Review process and how strict will they be in applying their own rules? Will they rule out updates to all apps with certain “high risk” third party SDKs unless they are connected to the tracking controls for users? Or will they accept assurances from app publishers that the SDKs are configured to not do “tracking”? Will they differentiate between third parties who are just “processors” in GDPR terms to the app publishers as “controllers” and thus cannot use data for any purpose the third party may choose? Or will Apple see their rules as something entirely aloof from GDPR and assume that “sharing” always means “selling” rights to the user’s data itself? And will they just block updates to apps that fail the test? Or will they escalate the reactions, as they could, to blocking app downloads or even freezing or deleting app developer accounts as penalties for policy breaches, intended or unintended?

Right now, nobody knows outside of the Apple boffins in Cupertino, CA. The rest of us are going to find out pretty soon when iOS14.5 goes out to the public.

If you’re a product manager or a data analytics leads for an app-centric business, you should be concerned about all this. Depending on how this plays out, it could force sudden and massive change in the whole data collection set-up of your iOS apps, stopping your product roadmap in its tracks and, most dangerous of all, disabling your ability to understand your users and disrupting your work to build the best product for them.

If you click on the “follow” button, I’m going to keep you updated with everything I learn about how to keep your product analytics working as we go through the tracking rollercoaster in the weeks to come. Hang on for the ride!

Product management leader in media and data companies. Practical digital privacy expert. I’m Irish, but live in Norway. I don’t represent my employer on Medium.