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Giants Leap Towards Privacy

People’s growing awareness and sensitivity towards privacy has led to several significant developments in recent times, among them being the decision by Google and Apple to allow users to control their data.

By Avneep Dhingra
By Avneep Dhingra

Associate Editor | Policy & Public Affairs

There is no date confirming the beginning of the discussion around privacy; some experts believe it’s probably as old as mankind. What is known is that the discussion started with the idea of protecting an individual’s body and home but shifted to controlling his/her personal information. One of the first arguments in favor of privacy dates back to 1891, when American lawyers Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis described the right to privacy in an article, calling it “the right to be let alone”.

Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves, more than anything else, being concerned about our private information. People’s growing awareness and sensitivity towards privacy has led to several significant developments in recent times, among them being the decision by two of the biggest players in the tech space to allow users to control their data. While Google has announced a suite of new privacy controls that gives users more power over their personal data, and has decided to do away with third-party cookies from next year, Apple has introduced the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature with the latest iOS 14.5 update. So, how will these developments pan out for users, advertisers and data brokers? Let’s take a look.

Google’s steps

At the Google I/O developer conference in May this year, the company announced multiple new privacy measures, including the ability for users to delete the last 15 minutes of their search history, a new folder for photos that is locked with password protection, reminders on location tracking in Google Maps, and an improved password manager designed for use across devices. The privacy controls on Android will now allow users to keep track of apps that access their camera, microphone or location, give them the ability to block some apps’ access to these functions, and only provide an approximate location to apps. “For the first time, Google is moving towards privacy. Let’s see if they walk their talk, though I believe they will, since they have the right intentions,” says Dr. Ann Cavoukian, a leading global privacy expert and the brain behind the Privacy by Design framework.

Dr. Ann Cavoukian

For the first time, Google is moving towards privacy. Let’s see if they walk their talk, though I believe they will, since they have the right intentions

Dr. Ann Cavoukian

A leading global privacy expert and the brain behind the Privacy by Design framework

Even though Google’s move seems to be in the right direction, there are concerns that it conflicts with its core business of online search advertising. “Google is trying to walk a tightrope between privacy and ad targeting,” feels Greg Sterling, VP of Insights, Uberall.

Greg Sterling

The end of third-party cookies is still quite concerning to a large number of marketers, most of whom haven’t developed viable alternative strategies

Greg Sterling

VP of Insights, Uberall

Earlier, the company had announced its decision to do away with third-party cookies, at least as far as its ad networks and Chrome browser are concerned, representing a significant change for the ad business. Third-party cookies are used by ad companies to track a person’s movement on the Internet, building his/her profile based on the visited sites, and then using both to send ads. Scores of ad companies that currently rely on cookies will now have to find other ways to target users.

“Google’s decision to abandon third-party cookies came after Safari, Firefox and others blocked or abandoned them. The end of third-party cookies is still quite concerning to a large number of marketers, most of whom haven’t developed viable alternative strategies. There is a lot of talk about first-party data, new identifiers and contextual targeting, but right now, there is no consensus on replacement,” says Sterling.

Meanwhile, Google appears to have come up with an alternative — the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) — a “privacy-first” and “interest-based” advertising technology. Through FLoC, Chrome will keep track of users’ browsing habits across the Web, and then place the users in various groups, or “cohorts”, based on those habits. So, companies can target their ads at cohorts rather than at individuals. “Google’s FLoC cohort approach is its answer but one that is increasingly under pressure from companies like WordPress that say they are going to block FLoC by default. So, it will be interesting to see how things play out over the next year as these changes come into effect,” Sterling adds.

Some industry players are of the view that several recent developments in the advertising and market space have been based on deeper consumer understanding — ability for personalization, understanding latent needs, etc. This has provided greater efficiency to marketers and has allowed small businesses to promote their products and services with minimal budgets and wastage. All of this has been on the back of consumer data. “Losing that will take marketing a step backwards as it will lead to wastage in terms of spends, and greater clutter of consumers who will be exposed to additional and non-relevant communication,” says Srikanth Ramachandran, Founder & CEO, Moving Walls.

Srikanth Ramachandran

There will be a difference in the way different organizations handle this trend, and their pace of acceptance will vary. The biggest challenge will be faced by the open web players who rely on third-party data

Srikanth Ramachandran

Founder & CEO, Moving Walls

Apple’s move

With its latest iOS 14.5 update, Apple has introduced a new feature called App Tracking Transparency (ATT), which enables users to stop apps from tracking their online activities. In other words, tracking via the Identifier for Advertisers device on iPhones, or the IDFA, will be opt-in. On updating the iPhone to the latest version, a user gets a pop-up notification on apps asking for his/her consent to let them track activity across other platforms. On choosing the “Allow” option, apps continue collecting the user data (age, spending habits, location, browsing history, etc.) and sell it to advertisers and data brokers who in turn come up with personalized ads. However, the “Ask App Not To Track” option ensures that apps do not collect and share/sell user data, thereby making it difficult for advertisers to target audiences.

Power to the User

With new measures announced by Google, users will be able to:

  • Quickly delete the last 15 minutes of their search history
  • Have access to a new photos folder that is locked with password protection on Pixel and other Android devices
  • Get reminders on location tracking in Google Maps
  • Have access to an improved password manager designed to be used across devices
  • Get alerts when a password uses is found in a data breach
  • Find out history of apps accessing camera, microphone or location of a device
  • Block some apps’ access to those functions

Apple has provided an additional privacy-related control to users by:

  • Launching the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature for iOS, iPadOS, and tvOS 14.5 that requires applications to ask permission if they want to track your activity across other companies’ apps
    and websites
  • If you are an Apple user and haven’t tried the ATT feature by now, you can do that by taking the following steps — open the settings app on your device and tap on privacy; choose tracking at the top of the screen; find out the apps that have asked for your permission to track you; toggle tracking on and off individually

Apple’s move has specifically upset Facebook, which has claimed that the ATT feature will hugely impact its business, as most of the iPhone users would say no to tracking. The social media giant has said that it gathers user data to provide personalized ads that support small businesses and help keep apps free. Facebook isn’t off the mark in its assessment, as reports suggest that less than 5% Apple users in the US have allowed apps to track their data after the new feature was introduced.

“Depending on whether the low opt-in rates with iOS 14.5 hold, Apple’s move could be quite consequential. Although there are critics who say that the company isn’t really serious about privacy because it doesn’t block tracking by default. The simplicity of its opt-in/out process is giving consumers real control over the use of their data (in theory) for the first time. I say ‘in theory’ because there will be questions of enforcement and compliance, and the inevitable cat and mouse scenarios with Apple and app developers,” explains Sterling. He claims that while it’s still too early to assess the impact on advertisers, there will certainly be an impact. “There are more sophisticated forms of contextual targeting, and companies like LiveRamp have developed alternative identifiers meant to compensate for the loss of cookies.”

Ramachandran, on the other hand, views this as a good trend for the industry, since it creates greater transparency and ensures that consumers are made aware of choices when they part with personal information. “There will be a difference in the way different organizations handle this trend, and their pace of acceptance will vary. The biggest challenge will be faced by the open web players who rely on third-party data,” he says.

Bjoern Bremer

Too many advertisers put their head in the sand and point their finger at the tech giants. Apparently, they should take care of it alone. We, as advertisers and agencies, must be responsible too. We have to respect people’s privacy and not go for ‘dirty’ wins

Bjoern Bremer

CEO and CCO, Ogilvy Group

Onus on self

As we move to an era where people are more aware and there are stringent regulations standing in the way of privacy breach, it’s best that advertising and marketing companies find better ways of data collection and targeting. Dr. Cavoukian puts it quite simply, “ I think the advertisers must learn to appeal to the target audience and get their consent. That may sound extreme, but if you are offering something to people you think they would be interested in, you just need to know how to reach out to them. If consent is sought, and if people are secure that their personal information would not be used beyond the stated purpose, they would show a lot of interest.”

Similarly, Bjoern Bremer, CEO and CCO, Ogilvy Group, suggests that advertisers and brands should be equally aware of the growing awareness and take the trend among people and demands seriously. “Too many advertisers put their head in the sand and point their finger at the tech giants. Apparently, they should take care of it alone. We, as advertisers and agencies, must be responsible too. We have to respect people’s privacy and not go for ‘dirty’ wins,” he says.

However, privacy is a two-way street, and the consumer has to be careful on his/her part. A large number of services that we take for granted — saving the password on the browser or sharing location for ease of getting a ride share — can lead to a privacy breach. “There will always be situations where individuals will trade their privacy for convenience or access to services,” says Ramachandran. As users, we must avoid such situations. In the age of data proliferation, drawing a balance between business interest and people’s privacy is the need of the hour. And the onus to do so lies as much on individuals as companies.