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Apple’s New Privacy Ad Is Absurd. That’s Why It’s So Brilliant

Inc. logo Inc. 5/25/2021 Jason Aten
a hand holding a cell phone: Apple’s New Privacy Ad Is Absurd. That’s Why It’s So Brilliant © Getty Images Apple’s New Privacy Ad Is Absurd. That’s Why It’s So Brilliant a hand holding a cell phone: In this photo illustration a woman holds the new iPhone 12... © Getty Images In this photo illustration a woman holds the new iPhone 12...

The iPhone maker is taking a much more aggressive stand on whether users should allow tracking. At all.

Last week, Apple quietly dropped a new ad. Like many of its recent spots, this one is a goofy look at what would normally be a less-than-funny subject. In this case, it's privacy.

Apple's most recent ad portrays the amount of tracking that happens within apps and on the sites you visit every day. It does it by following a man throughout the day, highlighting all the ways the different apps he uses are gathering and sharing data about it.

For example, the young man starts out at a coffee shop. When he leaves, the barista follows and jumps in a rideshare with him, sharing information with the driver. When he arrives at his destination, both the driver and barista follow him in and share more information with what looks to be a bank manager. You can imagine how quickly the whole thing spirals into mayhem as each interaction results in another tracker following him around throughout his day.

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Of course, the idea is quite simple--the iPhone gives you a way to stop the tracking. At the end, the iPhone user is given the option not to allow tracking, and the accumulated mass of trackers disappear like a game of whack-a-mole.

To be honest, it's kind of absurd.

That, however, is exactly why I think the ad is so brilliant. Here's what I mean:

Apple has been on quite the privacy crusade lately. This, in fact, is the second ad on the subject in the past eight months. This one focuses on Apple's recent App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature that requires developers to request permission before they're able to track you across apps and websites.

If you've updated your iPhone to iOS 14.5 (which you should do immediately, if you haven't already), you may have noticed little notifications popping up asking you whether you want to allow an app to track you. You may also remember how much Facebook fought against the update, even taking out ads of its own, accusing Apple of hurting small businesses and posing a threat to the open web as we know it.

Now that ATT is a part of iOS, it's not hard to see why Facebook was so worried. Some research shows that as many as 95 percent of users are opting out of allowing apps to collect their data.

It's pretty clear that most people aren't cool with handing over information about everything they do and buy online to every site they visit. Most people--when given a choice--would rather keep their personal information private.

Of course, if your everyday interactions resulted in the amount of physical world tracking and snooping and privacy-invading information sharing that happen in the digital world, you'd never put up with it. It's creepy and the benefits of "personalization" just aren't worth it.

The main reason that companies like Facebook have been able to get away with a business model based on monetizing your personal information is that most of us never think about what's actually happening. All of that tracking happens in the background and you only see the end result, which usually comes in the forms of targeted ads.

Even though they seem kinda creepy, it's pretty easy to not think about exactly what went into showing you one of these ads. Usually, you just scroll past to get to whatever it was you opened the app for in the first place, ignorant of the fact that your personal data is being monetized and you have no choice. Apple's ad reveals it in a way that makes it real, even if it's quite ridiculous.

If Apple's goal is to help people make better decisions about how their data is used, the biggest problem it faces is the general apathy its users demonstrate when it comes to protecting their information. That this ad is over the top is exactly why people are likely to pay attention.

It's also the most aggressive move by Apple so far to get people to tap the "Ask app not to track" button. Until now, Apple has been pretty consistent that developers should be allowed to track users, as long as users understand what that means and opt in.

Apple maintained that its only goal was to give users a choice about whether to be tracked. Now, however, the company has clearly come down on the side of encouraging users to opt out.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that Apple is airing this ad as it finishes defending itself in an antitrust trial with Epic Games, where it has consistently made the case that its App Store policies are all about protecting user privacy. I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's just a bit too convenient. Still, if Apple's goal is to raise awareness of exactly how much we're being tracked, this ad is not only absurd, it's brilliant.

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