Are shifting consumer attitudes towards privacy being exploited by Big Tech?

iOS 14.5 recently brought in widespread changes to how developers can track users across apps. The updated rules ensure consumers receive better information about what data is being collected and processed – and for what reasons. It also ensures that consumers must provide consent before having device-level identifiers – such as their IDFA number – harvested for ad targeting purposes.

So, how do consumers feel about these privacy-oriented updates? And are consumer attitudes helping to shape the decisions made by Big Tech regarding tracking and marketing?

 

Opposed to tracking

Two recent surveys help to shed light on consumer privacy attitudes. A study carried out by Invisibly surveyed 1,247 people from April 23rd to May 3rd, 2021. It revealed that respondents in the US are firmly opposed to targeted advertising. According to the findings, 68% of respondents believe data privacy is important and a further 82% support measures that prevent companies and devices from collecting or sharing their data. 

These findings were corroborated by These findings were corroborated by another study by Flurry, which found that around 96% of consumers using iPhone devices have opted out of app tracking since the changes to iOS 14.5 rolled out.

That so many consumers are opting out of app tracking could be considered surprising, particularly when 24% of Invisibly respondents also claimed that they like targeted adverts because it "helps them to find new products" that they "love." 

Despite this claim from close to a quarter of respondents, most consumers are now opting to block cross-app tracking when given the option – behavior that indicates a more deeply seated subconscious desire for privacy than those surveyed actively espouse. 

Apple and Google are working on rolling out changes that improve privacy and prevent tracking, and Flurry's findings act as a nod of approval. Google is currently phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome in favor of new privacy sandbox innovations, in fact. 

As the recent surveys show, privacy-forward policies from Apple and Google play directly into emerging consumer attitudes towards privacy. However, they also create some potential concerns over those companies' underlying motivations. So, is privacy the real end game? Or is something more sinister at play? 

Ask and you will receive

There is no doubt that consumer opinions are playing an important part in shifting how businesses like Apple and Google operate – at least outwardly. Last year, Justin Schuh, Director of Chrome engineering, stated that:

Users are demanding greater privacy - including transparency, choice, and control over how their data is used - and it's clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands.

Justin Schuh

This statement asserts that Google is acutely aware of shifting consumer attitudes. On the other hand, it also highlights the potential for Big Tech to capitalize on shifting attitudes for exploitative PR reasons.

So, can we trust companies like Google and Apple to execute changes that don't secretly permit them to further concentrate their power, creating anti-competitive advantages and potentially resulting in a whole new generation of privacy concerns for consumers?

Unfair advantages

Speaking at the Bird and Bird webinar on LinkedIn last week, Gabriel Voisin explained that IAB France, MMAF, SRI, and UDECAM have lodged a formal complaint with the French Competition Authority regarding the advantages iOS 14.5 gives Apple over third party app publishers and advertisers.

IAB France and a few other companies have decided to file a complaint and engage with the French Competition Authority back in October last year, and they clearly are arguing that in their view the move of Apple is favoring their own Apple solution to the detriment of the app publishers and advertisers.

Gabriel Voisin

To illustrate the complainer's point, Voisin compared the mandatory consent overlay for third-party apps against that used by Apple's own apps – which only include a small "don't allow" option in the top right.

Voisin rightly pointed out that these are massively contrasting implementation styles that appear to give Apple's apps a huge competitive advantage by making it more likely that consumers will opt-in.

Hidden motivations

Under these circumstances, it seems important to question Apple's underlying motivations. Is Apple genuinely seeking to improve privacy for consumers, or is it simply exploiting consumer desires to enact changes that result in competitive advantages?

Unfortunately, similar concerns have also been raised about Google's decision to block third-party cookies in favor of new technologies such as FLOC. Christopher Chan, director of content at Cut.com, isn't convinced that these changes will improve consumer privacy:

At least we knew how cookies worked. Instead, Google will shore up its surveillance power with even less oversight and accountability, black-boxed behind its proprietary technology. Not good news at all.

Christopher Chan

This viewpoint raises concerns over the potential for consumer attitudes to be exploited nefariously – particularly when viewed in context with other consumer beliefs.

A recent study carried out by Tidio, for example, has helped to highlight false beliefs that could bolster Big Tech's ability to exploit people's fears for their own ends. 

Tidio's survey revealed that 73% of respondents have been served an advert for a product shortly after talking about that product close to their mobile phone.

Of those people, over 40% believed that the advertising occurred because their phone was recording their conversations and sending data back to company servers. In its blog post on the subject, Tidio explains that this is a common misconception:

While phones and selected apps do "listen" to you all the time, they don't constantly collect your audio data or upload it to the servers. Additionally, you need to allow each and every app to access your microphone manually - this usually happens when you turn the app for the first time after installing it on your phone.

Tidio

Despite the false belief about how passive listening functions, this confirmation bias, and the suspicion and fear it creates, is helping to cement privacy as a leading consumer desire. On the other hand, these kinds of beliefs may reinforce collective fears that allow Big Tech to carve out new exploitative technologies and policies.

This is deeply concerning if it results in tracking being fully controlled by a single company like Google, or if it creates distinct anti-competitive advantages that are damaging to consumers in the long run.

At the end of the day, it is vital that companies like Apple and Google are held to the same standards that they claim to expect from others. And any changes and innovations rolled out by Big Tech must be monitored closely to ensure they result in privacy – and do not create circumstances for consumers to be exploited and tracked in novel ways.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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