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What’s Apple’s new ‘app tracking transparency’ and why is Zuck upset about it?

Apple users across the globe are adopting the latest operating system update, called iOS 14.5, featuring the now-obligatory new batch of emojis.

But there’s another change that’s arguably less fun but much more significant for many users: the introduction of “app tracking transparency”.

This feature promises to usher in a new era of user-oriented privacy, and not everyone is happy — most notably Facebook, which relies on tracking web users’ browsing habits to sell targeted advertising. Some commentators have described it as the beginnings of a new privacy feud between the two tech behemoths.

So, what is app tracking transparency?

App tracking transparency is a continuation of Apple’s push to be recognized as the platform of privacy. The new feature allows apps to display a pop-up notification that explains what data the app wants to collect, and what it proposes to do with it.

There is nothing users need to do to gain access to the new feature, other than install the latest iOS update, which happens automatically on most devices. Once upgraded, apps that use tracking functions will display a request to opt in or out of this functionality.

How does it work?

As Apple has explained, the app tracking transparency feature is a new “application programming interface”, or API — a suite of programming commands used by developers to interact with the operating system.

The API gives software developers a few pre-canned functions that allow them to do things like “request tracking authorization” or use the tracking manager to “check the authorization status” of individual apps.

In more straightforward terms, this gives app developers a uniform way of requesting these tracking permissions from the device user. It also means the operating system has a centralized location for storing and checking what permissions have been granted to which apps.