On the UDID ban: Tracking devices, users and advertisers

Over the past few weeks, several ad networks have announced "UDID-independent" conversion tracking tools. As Apple's UDID ban has gone into effect, mobile advertising has had to find other ways to track device users.

The problem with this is, of course, that they're still tracking. Apple's SDK supports lots of ways to retrieve hardware data that's not limited to UDID, and it's easy enough to re-build the same UDID that Apple's APIs no longer support.

What's uncomfortable about this transition away from UDID tracking to other forms of user identification is how hard these firms are scrambling to keep tracking users. In a nutshell, companies want to track because it's of value to advertisers, not because it's of value to users. iPhone owners are giving up some of their privacy, and for what? The ad companies are not creating coherent user experiences (UX) across time and device; they're just targeting ads.

Ad networks might reply that a clear audience demographic allows for more effective (and profitable) advertising on mobile, which in turn supports a more diverse and dynamic population of ad-supported free apps. Certainly the App Store's free lineup reflects a degree of ad-driven revenue that would be missed if it evaporated.

Of course, TUAW is an ad-supported site. We have to personally acknowledge the role of tracking cookies and other advertising technologies in supporting what we do. Mobile, however, feels different. It's more personal, it's location-aware, and it's less transparent to the end user.

What we're not seeing is transparency and explicit opt-outs. On-device tracking is done completely silently in applications. You can't open up a device's "cookies" to see who is tracking you, and what information is being shared. That's fundamentally different from the desktop browser experience.

It's a bit surprising we haven't seen a user-facing control panel for this. Whether provided device-side or as a webpage you can visit from your device, apps and advertising networks aren't allowing users to willingly opt-out from (or, even better, choose to opt-in to) this tracking.

As one developer shared with TUAW, "[O]ne of the differences about website tracking is that you're actively requesting something from an external entity. If I walk into the grocery store and the guy behind the counter remembers me, there's no surprise. App tracking is often more like if I pull my milk out of the fridge to pour a bowl of cereal and the fridge autonomously contacts the grocery store to tell them what kind of cereal I'm eating."

Often app developers say they track only to provide a more coherent launch-to-launch experience. But Apple has long since addressed the UX question of hardware tracking. iCloud allows apps to help customers build that coherent experience. You can lay down one device and pick up whatever you were doing on another. Not all applications support this integration yet, but the tech is there and working. Applications can coordinate bookmarks, data, game progress, and more.

That's not what these ad networks are doing and it's not what a lot of devs are doing either. They're tracking customers for marketing purposes. All these tools we're seeing, and all these press releases, are essentially an end-run around Apple's attempts to guard consumer privacy. It's treating paying customers as the "other side" in an adversarial relationship, as if they were nothing more than commodities -- and, as far as ad networks are concerned, users are the product.

Unfortunately, Apple has yet to come out with a clear statement of expectations even as it has tweaked its own ad solution to be more appealing to buyers. We have yet to see developers form a coalition saying, "Here is our pledge of professional conduct." Over the years, Apple has demonstrated how to profit by putting the customer first. Maybe it's time for the iOS developer community to do the same.