Apple Clamps Down on IDFA Workarounds

Ad tech aims to stay out of Apple's doghouse

Apple is staying true to its word, prohibiting any workaround to its privacy policies.

With Apple’s industry-altering software update, iOS 14.5, fast approaching, the tech giant is already clamping down on companies trying to build workarounds to its stringent privacy changes.

Apple has rejected app updates from developers whose apps included a set of digital tools called a software development kit (SDK) from Adjust, according to multiple sources. Apple red-flagged the SDK, because it apparently collected user data to create a unique identifier, essentially circumventing Apple’s privacy protocols and violating the company’s terms for app developers.

With the update, iPhone users will soon see prompts that ask if they want to be tracked across other apps and websites they visit. Apple announced this new privacy feature, called AppTrackingTransparency, last June but delayed it to this spring. Multiple sources Adweek spoke with expect the update to roll out this month.

The new prompt is expected to trigger mostly opt-out requests, leading to a deprecation of Apple’s mobile identifier that is used to serve targeted ads. Apple has overtly stated it will not allow any workarounds to uniquely identify individuals, an act called fingerprinting.

As a result, Adjust, which was acquired by AppLovin in February for nearly $1 billion, has updated its SDK and told developers to implement the new code. In a blog post, Adjust says its SDK was flagged because “it had code that Apple indicated as being in violation of their guidelines.”

Apple has not yet responded to Adweek’s requests for comment.

The shared risk of integrations

Ad-tech companies build identity workarounds by writing code that can collect information like region, language, location and even the amount of storage space left on a phone’s hard drive. The companies use them as signals to differentiate between devices–all moves Apple disallows.

Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, has also been working on ways to circumvent Apple’s privacy update and has turned to companies like Adjust for help, according to The Finacial Times.

Developers looking to update their apps go through an approval process, where Apple can flag anything that violates its terms, including integrations with illicit SDKs. Developers can’t update their apps until they either drop their wrong-doing ad-tech partner, or that partner fixes its tech to abide by Apple’s policies.

So, while Apple points the finger at the ad-tech company (like Adjust) it’s the app developers who immediately face hurdles. And given the mass amount of integrations companies like Adjust have, one red flag can create a domino effect that topples every developer caught up in that company’s web.

Most app developers have been preparing for Apple’s more stringent data privacy policies by auditing, and subsequently culling, a number of their ad-tech partnerships. Michael Brooks, svp of revenue for WeatherBug, said this process helps mitigate any shared risk, since the mobile ad industry is so intertwined.

“Any partner who we integrate with now, we are responsible for every partnership that they have and how they’re deploying their technology everywhere else,” said Brooks. “So, the whole SDK audit-process involves going through things with every partner and asking, ‘What data are you collecting, and what are your rights to send it?’”

Staying out of the doghouse

As for Adjust, the business impact of Apple’s rebuke is unclear. Updating an SDK is time-consuming and losing access to valuable data can hurt, but that puts Adjust on the same level as other vendors trying to make sense of Apple’s drastic privacy updates. But being in Apple’s doghouse could put relationships with app developers at risk.

Charles Manning, CEO of Kochava, a mobile analytics company, said relationships with app developers can go two ways after Apple red-flags a given tech partner. A developer can implement the updated code and say, “no harm done,” or the developer can drop their tech partner in order to update their app and end the relationship there.  

“If you lose trust among the ecosystem, because you’re doing something nefarious, especially after all of this guidance [from Apple], it begs the question among a lot of app developers: Is this a partner that I want to continue to depend on?” asked Manning.

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