App tracking, a lucrative business misunderstood by many phone users

Apps often make it feel like tracking is necessary for them to work properly. Instead it's all about getting your data to make money. — Photo: Christin Klose/dpa

LONDON: It’s a multibillion dollar piggy bank for Big Tech, but app tracking remains something of a mystery to many mobile phone users.

According to new research, people commonly think such tracking is needed for an app to work effectively. However the real aim is to gather information on the phone user for targeted advertisements to appear on-screen.

Around 43% of phone users in a survey conducted by the University of Bath in the UK "were confused or unclear about what app tracking means," with some thinking allowing it means getting "a better user experience."

A quarter of respondents mistakenly believed the tracking is needed to allow the location of the device to be shared with a vendor, making it therefore necessary for conveniences such as app-based food delivery or collection services.

Over half the people surveyed said they had privacy or security worries, or both, when it came to allowing app tracking, but those concerns were not at the same time associated with a lower rate of app tracking acceptance.

"Some of the confusion is likely to be due to lack of clarity in wording chosen by companies in the tracking prompts, which are easy to misinterpret," said Hannah Hutton of the University of Bath’s School of Management.

That means "it's probably no surprise that people thought they were opting for additional functionality rather than just more relevant adverts."

Opting out stops the company from tracing the phone users’ apps and websites, preventing the appearance in apps of targeted advertising or the sharing of information with so-called data brokers.

The app tracking is part of the reason the likes of Facebook and Twitter are free to use. Why? They make big money from advertising, from companies who can target customers using the information hoovered up once the app tracking is allowed.

"Every day, millions of us share information with tech companies and while some of this data is essential for these services to function correctly, other data allows them to generate money from advertising revenue. For example, Meta predicted that they would lose US$10bil (RM46bil) from people rejecting tracking," said David Ellis, professor of behavioural science.

App tracking for iPhone users is an option given when a user first opens an app, when a pop-up asks for a yes or no to whether they want to allow the app company to track their activity across other apps. Android users do not get the option as a pop-up, but must access tracking consent in their phone settings. – dpa

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