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How to Stop Advertisers From Tracking You on Your Smartphone

Apple, Google are starting to address some privacy concerns

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The ads you see on your phone come across as invasive, and the idea that you’re being followed from site to site feels downright creepy.

Thirty-four percent of people 50 and above who responded to an AARP survey in 2021 cited privacy concerns as a top barrier to adopting new technology. And meeting the privacy wishes of consumers may run counter to the interests of certain tech companies, which see targeted advertising as their lifeblood.

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It’s why privacy advocates have generally applauded Apple’s move last year to give folks a say in the way companies track their activity and share data online. And the move most notably disrupted Facebook parent Meta, which told analysts that the measures will knock down revenues by about $10 billion in 2022.

Now both Apple and Google have plans

App Tracking Transparency, introduced with the iOS 14.5 update, required Apple app developers to seek your permission to be tracked across apps and websites they don’t own or to share your information with so-called data brokers. Such opt-in app tracking requests come through a user prompt. Most people are denying that request.

But what about Android? Google, after all, has its own vested interest in the digital ad business.

"Let me be clear: When Google says, 'Let these companies make money on ads,' Google is the company making money on ads. It's not close."

— Bennett Cyphers, Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Alphabet-owned tech giant this month announced a plan to curtail tracking on Android devices, at least sort of. While not mentioning Apple by name, it hinted that it is “bluntly” taking a different path. That approach is through an initiative called Privacy Sandbox on Android, though details remain sketchy, and Google acknowledges that what it is devising may take at least a couple of years before it is fully put in place.

In a mid-February blog post, Google indicated that its goal “is to develop effective and privacy enhancing advertising solutions, where users know their information is protected, and developers and businesses have the tools to succeed on mobile.” Google pointed out that 90 percent of the apps available in its Google Play store are free and that digital advertising plays a key role in making that possible.

How exactly Google plans to thread this needle, much less how the Privacy Sandbox will ultimately play out for consumers, is murky.

"Let me be clear: When Google says, 'Let these companies make money on ads,' Google is the company making money on ads. It’s not close. They are by far the biggest mobile advertiser in the world," says staff technologist Bennett Cyphers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit civil liberties advocacy group in San Francisco.

As an Android user, you can do something about your privacy immediately. Android devices carry a unique advertising ID, a string of characters that Google says helps developers monetize their apps or, couched differently, use targeted ads to profit off what they learn about you and share with others. But late last year, Google gave users the ability to disable the advertising ID, which many — if not most — of you may want to do.

spinner image three android phone screenshots showing privacy settings for ads
In Settings on an Android smartphone, choose Privacy | Ads. On the third screen you can choose whether to Reset your advertising ID and your phone will start gathering new information or Delete your advertising ID to get general ads.

What to do on Android

If you’re running the Android 12 mobile operating system on your phone, go to Settings, scroll down to Privacy, and tap Ads. You have two choices. You can tap Reset advertising ID, which doesn’t remove the advertising ID, it just starts a new one. Or you can tap Delete advertising ID, which does just that.

Keep in mind that deleting the advertising ID doesn’t mean you’ll stop seeing ads, just that they will no longer be personalized. Rather than a set of numbers that identify your device, developers will see a string of zeros instead.

The privacy trade-off is that you may start to see ads that you find less interesting or relevant. If this becomes an issue, you always can get a fresh advertising ID later.

Cyphers of EFF says user privacy ought to trump any benefit that comes with a more personalized ad.

“If you put that on one side of the scale and on the other side of the scale you have this giant data broker industry and people’s fine-grained information about where you went for the past two years being sold to seven different shady companies you never heard of on the open market — if you think that’s worth it because you get slightly more relevant ads — sure,” he says.

While you can delete the advertising ID, Google points out that certain apps may have their own settings that can affect the kind of ads you see. Beginning in April, the ability to disable the advertiser ID will expand to all apps running on Android phones, tablets and Android TVs that support Google Play, Google also says.

spinner image two iphone screenshots showing how to adjust privacy settings for tracking for each app on phone
To control which apps will track your behavior, go to Settings | Privacy then tap Tracking. On the next screen, flip the switch to the green "on" to Allow Apps to Request to Track. Change the settings for individual apps in your list below.

What to do on Apple

If you’re an iPhone user, go to Settings, tap Privacy then tap Tracking and flip the switch to on to enable the Allow Apps to Request to Track. If off, all tracking requests will be denied. Inside Settings, you can also enable switches to grant or deny permission to track on a per-app basis.

Another option found in Privacy settings under Apple Advertising — you will have to scroll down to see it — lets you tap a Personalized Ads switch to toggle the feature on or off. Such ads may appear in the App Store, Apple News and Stocks apps. But Apple says its advertising platform does not follow you across apps and websites or share personalized information with third parties.

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Apple says it is not tracking when an app developer combines information about you or your device solely on the device itself, or in certain situations where activity is shared with outsiders for fraud detection or security purposes, or to determine your creditworthiness. Meanwhile, check out other privacy settings on your devices.

“I think the most important thing is to audit the permissions that your apps have,” Cyphers says, including deciding which apps you allow to monitor your location or use your microphone, especially when you’re not actively using those apps.

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