Apps often ask this question: “Can we track you across apps?” And chances are, you have a lot of questions. Like, why do you want to track me across other apps? What’s in it for me? What’s it in for you?
It’s a wonder we get through the day at all, with all the decision fatigue we face. While our caveman ancestors were trying to decide whether to club a saber-toothed tiger with a stick or just eat some dirt, we’re staring at our phones, trying to remember passwords and debating very 21st-century questions like: Should I let this app track me across other apps?
It’s a question that users have asked a lot since 2021 when Apple phones began a policy called App Tracking Transparency, which forbids app makers from tracking user activity across other apps without permission.
So what’s the right answer?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Here’s how the experts answered our questions about the issue.
What does advertising have to do with all of this?
A lot of your personal decision depends on your personality and how you feel about advertising. Because advertising, as you can imagine, is a big part of why apps like to track you across apps.
Advertising is the big reason any app wants to track you across other apps. Chetan Jaiswal, an associate professor of computer science at Quinnipiac University, offers up an example of somebody downloading an app belonging to a fitness center you belong to.
“Assuming the user is an active user who goes to the gym six days a week, tracking the location of such a user could help shopping sites like Amazon to advertise health supplements,” Jaiswal said. He also points out that travel sites like Booking.com or Expedia “could track users’ activity that relates to hotels and airlines and can advertise related deals without active involvement from the user and can then also add calendar events as reminders for reservations. Apps like Uber or DoorDash could track users’ location and spending to suggest ‘local’ or ‘nearby’ deals.”
Some of you, of course, will think, “Hey, cool, thanks. I was just Googling ‘delicious cheeses,’ and now I’ve got a couple of coupons for cheese.”
And some of you will look at the coupons and think, “What the [censored]? This is really creepy.”
Should I allow an app to track me if I like ads or don’t mind them?
Well, maybe, and maybe not.
On the one hand, Robin Chataut, an assistant professor of cybersecurity and computer science at Quinnipiac University, said, “If you trust the app and are comfortable with it collecting data on your activities across other apps, you can choose to allow tracking.”
In other words, your world isn’t likely to fall apart.
“This may result in a more personalized experience within the app and potentially relevant advertisements,” Chataut added.
On the other hand, Isabelle Freiling, an assistant professor in the communications department at the University of Utah, has researched disclosing information and the anxiety and privacy concerns that come with it. She told us that allowing apps to track you can go far beyond simply seeing some ad pop up on your web browser that you’re really interested in.
“If apps are allowed to share a user’s data with others, this can include sharing the data with data brokers,” Freiling said. “Data brokers build complex profiles about users and group them into specific categories that can be sold to, for example, other companies for advertising — or to insurance providers.”
Why should I care if an insurance provider has some of my information?
Insurance companies seem friendly enough. They’ve got some of the best commercials on TV. There’s Flo, and that gecko, and, boy, that ostrich seems to have a bright future in Hollywood.
But then things turn dark because Freiling said that data brokers can wind up with sensitive intel, such as health or location information.
“This can be harmful to the individual user,” Freiling said. “For example, health insurance providers may use this data to recalculate what rate they are charging that specific user.”
So if you go to a lot of fast food restaurants, and you aren’t getting the salads but the triple bacon burger, and if your health insurer knows that … the potential is there, your health insurance premiums shoot up.
Of course, you’ll never know if that’s why you’re paying more or if it’s just inflation and the sorry state of health insurance. But when Freiling puts it that way, it is something to think about.
Do technology pros allow apps to track them?
I asked a couple of tech folks at random to see what they’d say. Tyler Fisher is the chief operating officer at Counslr, a text-based mental health support app that provides unlimited access to live texting sessions with licensed professionals. And, no, their app doesn’t track users across other apps.
Fisher said he always opts out of apps, tracking him across other apps if he can.
“iPhones have a nice setting called ‘Allow Apps to Request to Track’ that can be turned off, to automatically prevent apps from even being able to ask you if they can track you. That setting has been off on my device since it was first implemented,” Fisher said. “As the age-old saying goes, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. I personally tend to prefer non-targeted ads over targeted ones, and when possible, try to use software that does not serve ads in the first place. All else equal, I much prefer to use apps that don’t ask or attempt to track me outside of the apps themselves.”
But to clarify, Fisher added that he does let certain apps he trusts track him — just not across other apps.
“When it comes to permissions and tracking within an app, I do indeed have that enabled for apps where it’s useful or needed,” Fisher said, citing a couple of examples like Google Maps or his banking app, “where it helps check for card security or legitimacy of transactions.”
Gajen Sunthara is the chief technology officer at SimpliFed, an infant nutrition website that also doesn’t track apps across apps. Sunthara said that, for the most part, if given the choice, he also won’t let an app track him — for the usual reasons.
“Your privacy is gone, and companies mine their user data into their companies and will share with third parties, data science companies, contractors, advertisers and their customers,” Sunthara said.
He said there are other reasons he would be wary about letting too many companies track you across other apps.
“Many companies will have your data, and if one of them is hacked, it will be leaked and will be on the dark web for commercial use and unauthorized access to your data,” Sunthara explained.
Still, unlike Fisher, Sunthara has an Achille’s heel for letting apps track him. He allows it for Amazon.
“I do most shopping online with Amazon Prime, and I don’t mind getting the best deals,” Sunthara said.
If we opt out, are our problems all over?
Of course not. “The app tracking transparency only applies to apps that are downloaded from the official app store,” Chataut said, referring to an iPhone or Android app store. “If you have downloaded an app from a third-party website, it may still be able to track your activity without your permission.”
And there’s been a lot of talk that some big corporations get around loopholes and track people anyway.
So, worrying about whether to let an app track us or not could be an utter waste of time?
Well, not entirely. If being tracked bothers you, and you can select “no,” you might as well get one fewer company following your every move. And there seems to always be some legislature being worked on that would make it harder for people to be tracked willy-nilly. So, even if tracking gets worse, eventually, it may get better.
You also want to be careful about downloading an app from a store or company you don’t know well. While phones are pretty well protected, it is possible to download malware that suddenly turns your device into a screen full of pop-up ads and a hacker’s paradise where your personal information can be stolen. And that’s when you might think cavemen maybe had it pretty good.