June 21, 2023

Written by Tim Colucci

Apple Increases the Stakes in the Consumer Privacy Wars

Apple’s 2023 Worldwide Developers Conference generated a lot of news coverage because Apple unveiled its long-anticipated mixed reality headset, VisionPro. But the device won’t hit the market until 2024, and only early adopters with $3,500 to spare will use it (initially). Meanwhile, Apple announced something more impactful to the advertising world: a new privacy control.

Coming Soon: iOS 17

Apple’s iOS 17, the company’s newest operating system, will add greater protection for private browsing, both from trackers as a user browses, and from people who might have access to a user’s device. Advanced tracking and fingerprinting protections go even further to help prevent websites from tracking or identifying a user’s device. Private browsing will lock when not in use, allowing a user to keep tabs open even when stepping away from the device.

Apple will also add link tracking protection in Messages, mail, and Safari browsing. The default setting is private browsing, but the feature can apply to all browsing if it’s turned on under a user’s device settings.

Link tracking protection could have some major impacts. Some websites add extra information to their URLs in order to track users across other websites. Now this information will be removed from the links users share in Messages and mail. This information will also be removed from links in Safari private browsing.

Digging Deeper

Advertisers and analytics firms employ a method of tracking user activity across websites by adding tracking parameters to links. Instead of relying on third-party cookies, they append a tracking identifier to the end of the page URL. This approach evades Safari’s intelligent tracking prevention features that block cross-site cookies and other forms of session storage.

When a user visits such a URL, the analytics or advertising service at the destination can access the URL and extract the unique parameters. These parameters are then associated with the service’s backend user profile, enabling the delivery of personalized ads.

To address this practice, Apple is taking measures to curtail it across its operating systems this year. Safari will automatically identify the identifying components of the URL and remove only those parts, leaving the remaining URL intact so that users can still reach their intended web page.

This process occurs during browser navigation in Safari’s private browsing mode, as well as when clicking on links in the Mail and Messages apps.

As a partial solution, Apple has introduced an alternative method for advertisers to measure the success of their campaigns. Private Click Measurement, available in Safari’s private browsing mode, allows advertisers to track conversion metrics without disclosing individual user activity.

Implications of iOS 17

What are the implications? Well, iOS 17 won’t hit until likely September 2023, so no one knows for sure yet. But based on what we know, the new feature could disrupt the audience creation process on platforms such as Meta, Google, and Microsoft due to the parameters being stripped, but aggregated metric data will likely be OK. Apple will not be able to kill those nor the little redirects as they’re necessary for the marketplace and part of the auditing process.

But iOS could disrupt email marketing. In email marketing, links to websites often contain personalized identifiers that track user activity. Apple is taking steps to eliminate this personalized information from links clicked within the Apple mail client. This change may have implications not only for attribution but also for other integrations that rely on such information, such as how websites apply promotions. If you are currently building audiences or affinity models based on user click-through from emails, it is expected that these audiences will see a significant decrease as users adopt this feature.

In terms of marketing, it is important to anticipate how reporting will function in the future. As I noted, with regards to attribution, Apple has been advocating for the use of Private Click Measurement. This tool allows advertisers to track ad campaign conversion metrics without revealing individual user activity, striking a balance between advertising needs and user privacy. As attribution becomes increasingly challenging due to technical policies and regulations, it may be the right moment to embrace attribution methods that prioritize user privacy.

The complete impact of this update remains uncertain for numerous companies, posing challenges for those currently relying on query parameters for on-site personalization or deep linking. While there are potential workarounds, they are not without difficulties, and the overall user experience may be less than satisfactory for some individuals.

Contact True Interactive

At True Interactive, we’re following all latest updates to consumer privacy and adapting our own tools accordingly. We have our clients covered. Contact us to learn how we can help you.