Is Your iPhone Tracking Every Move?

Category: Mobile

Every move you make... Every step you take... I'll be watching you. You remember that song by Sting. But has Apple adopted this as their new iPhone advertising strategy? Read on to find out what you should know about a new feature on your iPhone that lets advertisers track and target you online...

The New iPhone Tracker - And How to Turn it Off

For a few months in 2012, owners of Apple iPhones were practically immune from being tracked by advertisers. But the iOS 6 operating system installed on iPhone 5s includes a new tracking feature. Much to the joy of advertisers, tracking is turned on by default; even better, it’s well hidden and confusing to turn off. Here is what’s new and how to disable tracking on your iPhone 5.

Previously, advertisers used the iPhone’s UDID – an unalterable serial number hard-coded into every phone – to identify each iPhone and deliver targeted ads based on its location and online activity. Responding to privacy concerns raised in Congress, Apple barred third-party app developers from exploiting the UDID. So for a while, iPhone users could not be tracked by advertisers.

But when iOS 6 arrived in September, it quietly included a new feature called “Identifier For Advertisers,” or IFA. It is much like a cookie: a randomly generated number created and assigned to each iPhone 5 that can be used to tell advertisers where the device is and what the user is doing online.
Turn off iPhone Tracking

In some ways, the IFA is a better tracking tool for advertisers than the UDID was. It allows advertisers to track a user all the way to “conversion,” or actually taking the action that the ad is urging. Previously, an advertiser could only know that you clicked on an ad, not whether you downloaded and app or made a purchase that the ad inspired.

Much Ado?

Now before you get too excited, understand that the IFA does NOT identify an iPhone’s owner personally; advertisers don’t know your name or anything else about your real life. (The UDID, in contrast, might have been used to obtain warranty registration and other personal info.)

It's also important to note that turning off the IFA feature will NOT result in less ads being delivered to your iPhone. It will only make them more generic, instead of being targeted to your online interests or activities. For example, if you have IFA enabled and you visit websites having to do with fashion and clothing, you'll probably see ads for Macy's, Nordstrom and Zappos. With IFA turned off, you'll see ads for things that probably don't match your needs or interests -- like car insurance, weight loss or credit scores.

That's the tradeoff. IFA's tracking and targeting gives advertisers a peek at the "generic you" in order to deliver ads that may be more interesting, relevant or beneficial to you. But users who find that creepy, or who are concerned about privacy may want to disable IFA, and that’s not so easy.

Turning Off the iPhone Tracking Feature

You would expect to find IFA among the “Privacy” settings on an iPhone 5. But no, it’s under the “General” category instead. Even more obscurely, it’s buried under the “About” tab on the “General” menu. Finally, on the “About” menu you will find the “Advertising” section.

The control for IFA is labeled “Limit Ad Tracking.” You must set this option to “ON,” which may be confusing to some users. If you want to disable something, the natural instinct is to turn it “OFF.”

Advertisers are pretty thrilled with IFA. It’s enabled by default, so most users won’t ever change it. It’s well hidden, and the method of disabling it is counterintuitive. Finally, it’s not well publicized; Apple’s iOS 6 blog page does not mention IFA, for instance.

Again, IFA does not track you personally. But if you don’t like targeted ads or the fact that your iPhone 5 is communicating with unknown servers, you now know how to disable this dubious new “feature.”

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Your iPhone Tracking Every Move?"

Posted by:

Michael Stein
19 Oct 2012

Dear Bob,
One more piece of our privacy taken away. In this case, Apple goes out of its way to hide the feature and make it difficult to turn it off. Mining data, however innocuous they make it sound, takes precedence over privacy. I find it a bit creepy, like having someone looking through the windows of your home all the time.

Perhaps in the new digital world, many people don't even care: "Hey, I have nothing to hide", they say. If, however, this sort of surveillance starts to track your habits, your health status, your religious beliefs, your income, your every move and is misused, there will be an outcry. But then, it may be too late.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2012

My iPhone 4 downloaded and installed IOS 6, which included this feature. Thank you for the "heads up" on this.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2012

The tracking is for IOS 6, not just the iphone 5. Is on my iphone 4S.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2012

I have never been a fan of tracking and targeting. I don't feel comfortable with it and turn it off on all my devices. I'm also not a fan of what Apple has become. They have completely and thoroughly replaced and exceeded Microsoft as the Evil Empire.

It is this type of action that ensures that I will never buy an Apple product.

Thanks for the information. I will pass it on to those I know who own iPhones.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2012

Thanks and done!

Posted by:

19 Oct 2012

How nice of Apple to invade our privacy even more. My first and last Apple product was an iphone 4s....awful battery life and hard to use menus. Apple does great marketing....they can sell millions of iphone5's that are deficient and obsolete compared to many other phones in most every aspect and yet get most of the "news" media to herald their arrival as the best thing since NIMH batteries.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2012

IFA is on any phone using iOS6, even my iPhone 4s. Thanks to your article, I know how to disable it.

Posted by:

Shady Character
19 Oct 2012

The IFA feature is not limited to IPhone5. Any IPhone, 4 or 4S, which has been upgraded to IOS6 has been "infected" and IFA can be turned off as explained in the article.

Posted by:

Shady Character
19 Oct 2012

The IFA feature is not limited to IPhone5. Any IPhone, 4 or 4S, which has been upgraded to IOS6 has been "infected" and IFA can be turned off as explained in the article.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2012

Thanks for the heads-up. But the article is not just related to the iPhone 5; IFA tracking is also enabled on my IOS 6-updated iPhone 4.

Posted by:

Louis Paul Toscano
20 Oct 2012

That song by Sting is about stalking. Apple ought to rethink its use for advertising.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2012

If the ads only appear when you are using the web browser rather than popping up on your actual phone, then they are no different to ads that you see when using a browser on your computer or laptop.

As I do not like the idea of advertisers 'tracking' what I click on or knowing where I am in the world, I have IE delete all my cookies as soon as I close it. But if you're going to be bombarded with ads anyway, I suppose it's marginally better to be bombarded with targetted ads than to be bombarded with generic ads that may rarely have any relevance to you at all! But it would be even better if you could block ALL ads from your browsers, wouldn't it?!

Posted by:

Smoky Lowe
20 Oct 2012

One of the main reasons I would never trust Apple for anything.Besides being to expensive,they charge for all updates and most all apps..

Posted by:

20 Oct 2012

All these things are reasons why I still don't own a SmartPhone ... or even a GPS device for my car. There is too much room for abuse and invasion of privacy. This goes in the same category as store loyalty cards: an advertising gimmick that is deceptive and is not designed with my best interests at heart.

Posted by:

22 Oct 2012

I think that the title is a bit misleading. It mentions tracking every move, but it deals more with ad tracking.

Posted by:

24 Oct 2012

For those with other IOS devices, this setting is not limited to just the iPhones... also found on the iPod Touch (and I would assume on the 'Pads as well).

Posted by:

Brian S.
26 Oct 2012

Okay, I know this is slightly off topic Bob, but it has been mentioned twice now. "Every Breath You Take", although was written by Mr. Gordon Sumner, aka "Sting", the song was originally produced as a "Police" song for their final, and in my personal opinion, greatest studio album "Synchronicity".

Posted by:

07 Nov 2012

THANK you for alerting me to this issue. I have an Iphone 4 and did not realize this was being added when the software changed. I want to be sure - mine is set "on." I want to keep it that way, right? There's a button on the bottom you can press that will "tell you more..." Written in a very confusing way.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, ON is the desired setting, if you don't want relevant ads.

Posted by:

18 Feb 2013

On my iPhone the Limit Ad Tracking was already on. I suspect that is the default state.

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