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Apple faces privacy lawsuit over app activity tracking concerns

This comes as Apple continues to expand its digital advertising business.

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Apple faces a class action lawsuit in California over claims that the company violated its own privacy policy.

The civil suit alleges Apple harvested device analytics data from users that had explicitly opted out. It further accuses the company of violating the California Invasion of Privacy Act

Activity tracking

Earlier this month, security researchers from software company Mysk discovered the built-in iPhone apps routinely transmitted user activity back to Apple, irrespective of whether the user had opted-in or not. 

Mysk’s research showed the App Store transmitting vast amounts of real-time user telemetry, ranging from apps users tapped on, to their search activity, to how long they spent reading a particular App page. 

Further investigations identified similar behavior in other stock iPhone apps, including Apple Music, Apple TV, Books, and Stocks. 

Mysk claims this data isn’t anonymized in any meaningful sense. It includes ID numbers, device type, screen resolution, keyboard languages, and how the user connects to the Internet.

As Gizmodo highlighted, this information can combine to create unique “fingerprints” of each user and thus allow Apple to associate activity with a specific person. 

Privacy. That’s iPhone

The lead plaintiff in the civil case, Elliot Libman, accused Apple of hypocrisy, citing its heavily privacy-centric marketing. 

In one advert, a thinly-veiled rebuke of Meta and Google, Apple portrays user data as a commodity routinely bought and sold by tech giants. It includes the tagline: “Privacy. That’s iPhone.”

The lawsuit — which is available on Bloomberg Law — claims Apple’s practices “deceive customers” and “give Apple and its employees [the] power to learn intimate details about individuals’ lives.”

The revelations come as Apple expands its digital advertising business.

The company has added new ad formats in the App Store, is reportedly working on ads for Apple TV+ (a lá Netflix), and is seeking to onboard small business advertisers

Privacy in an Adtech World

Reconciling advertising — and, more specifically, the digital adtech industry — with privacy is a formidable challenge.

It is something Facebook and Google have long struggled with. It’s a sector where regulators are all too willing to act, if they identify a particularly troubling practice. 

Apple, for what it’s worth, has a glistening reputation when it comes to user privacy. It’s perhaps the sole major tech brand that’s relatively untarnished.

This reputation isn’t entirely undeserved. Apple’s focus on device sales gives it an advantage in this space. It largely hasn’t violated user privacy because it hasn’t needed to. It makes enough money from MacBooks and iPhones. 

But as the company looks beyond this space, maintaining that privacy advantage will only prove harder. 

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Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Past work can be found on The Register, Reason, The Next Web, and Wired.

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