It’s no secret that companies on the other side of a mobile app, service or virtual experience routinely collect information about their users. We’ve known for a long time there’s a lot of sensitive information exchanging hands like this, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we know precisely what said data includes.
The permissions request system in modern operating systems is a useful, albeit limited, feature on both iOS and Android devices. Users can either grant or deny permission for apps to collect, access and sometimes even alter personal data on a device. While helpful, it doesn’t explicitly reveal how the data is being used or what’s actually collected.
To make things a little clearer, Apple has launched a new set of app privacy labels for its mobile storefronts. They’re already live and visible in the app stores for iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, macOS and tvOS devices.
What Are Apple’s New Privacy Labels?
Apple explains the labels in more detail on its developer portal. Broken into three categories, the labels divulge what information an app collects from its users. These categories are:
- Data used to track a user.
- Data linked directly to a user’s identity.
- Data collected but not linked to a user’s identity.
The data used to track someone may be tied to a particular account or device, and it may merge information from other apps and services. An example is when a user’s browser search history is merged with marketing data to influence a targeted advertising campaign.
“Linked” data refers to anything used to dig into the user’s identity, behaviors or social profile. It could include information about addresses, known family members, purchase history, user IDs and much more.
“Unlinked” data is any type of information about the device, user or experience that is not associated with a particular account. An example might be gameplay or user experience data that goes into an anonymized “pool” of data to inform future development. Anonymous bug reporting is another example.
What Does This Mean for App Developers?
According to Apple, developers will need to “provide information about [their] app’s privacy practices, including the practices of third-party partners whose code [they] integrate into [an] app, in App Store Connect.”
To submit and manage applications in Apple’s app stores, developers must divulge these details to customers. It means there’s no getting around the disclosure process, at least for those who still wish to develop and distribute apps across Apple’s virtual storefronts.
There are some exceptions, such as when location, device ID and sensitive data are used but never shared with a remote server. Apple explains that data processed locally on a device “is not ‘collected’ and does not need to be disclosed.”
However, if the developers derive value from this local content and then send it from the user’s device to another location, they should disclose this process.
Before a company invests in a native application or mobile experience for its users, it must now consider how personal data is going to be utilized. Because the information must be presented before anyone downloads or installs the app, it should mean apps won’t be designed to collect information freely without oversight. Developers and organizations are now on the hook for what’s being collected and how it’s being leveraged.
Companies typically build or develop apps to keep customers engaged and bring their business to the forefront of users’ digital lives. These app “nutrition labels” from Apple represent an improved user experience and greater accountability expectations for digital companies.
What Does It Mean for the Average User?
It’s difficult to say what’s going to happen in the mobile app industry, as this doesn’t necessarily force a change in behavior or development practices. It merely calls for developers to disclose what data they collect.
For the privacy-conscious consumer, it makes the nigh-impossible task of managing and maintaining anonymity a bit easier. People can see exactly what an app gathers before installing it. This offers more freedom to avoid questionable products.
For instance, those who are uncomfortable with location tracking or contacts access can now more carefully avoid apps that target this type of data merely by reviewing the privacy disclosure on the app’s store page.
Apps that appear to collect too much information may see their download numbers and performance impacted. Consumers may ignore developers that are known for capitalizing on a lack of online privacy.
Of course, it’s also possible that the labels will be ignored and there will be no substantial changes. We’ll have to wait and see.
Where Are the App Store Labels?
A new “App Privacy” section now appears in Apple’s online stores on product pages. It’s located just below the “Ratings” and “Reviews” area. It is here that users will see what information an app collects, along with more detailed information about how the data is processed and leveraged.
It’s worth noting that, since the feature is new, many app pages have yet to be updated. It is up to the developers of each application to share and provide the necessary details. We will see more widespread use of this feature over time and as more developers update their apps.
The good news is that we are gaining more power over our data. It’s a slow process, but the effort helps consumers make more informed decisions about how and when we share our information on digital platforms.