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Descriptions of Apple’s new privacy labels almost invariably make the comparison with nutrition labels on packaged food, and understandably. In both cases, the goal is to give consumers complicated information, in an easy-to-understand format, that enables them to make better choices and protect themselves against harm. Just like the nutrition label though, the effectiveness of Apple’s privacy labels raises some questions.

These labels, which are available for each app downloaded from the App Store, detail the kinds of information that each app gathers from users. Rather than having to read lengthy privacy statements, consumers can check for three categories: data used to track you (e.g., the app follows you across platforms to see where you browsed and in what order), data linked to you (e.g., purchase histories), and data not linked to you (e.g., mapping technologies that briefly access the device so they can provide directions, without saving your location information afterwards).

In some cases, the reports seem logical and appropriate. Spotify and Apple Music both keep track of data linked to users, such as the songs they download, so that they can recommend other music for people to consider. But others are rather more confusing; an app used primarily to open a smart garage door seemingly has little reason to gather personal data about the person.

Of course, those forms of personal data collection likely exist to support extended advertising personalization and targeting. If consumers prefer to avoid such targeting, they can delete the offending apps from their phones to limit their exposure—assuming they understand precisely what the different categories mean. For example, “contact info” is a type of data that gets classified under both the data used to track you and data linked to you categories in the App Store. Thus it remains rather confusing for consumers to determine what a particular app might be doing with their contact information, once it gains access.

Furthermore, to access the labels themselves, users need to go back to the App Store and check the description of each app they are investigating. The information is not readily available in the app itself, once installed on their devices. Finally, there are no standards or monitoring authorities checking whether the app developers are telling the truth when they provide the information used to create the privacy label. Arguably, a company could claim to collect minimal data that might track consumers, all the while illicitly accessing all sorts of information from users’ phones. Such practices would be unethical and likely prompt sanctions, but only if they were identified and caught.

But the extreme difficulty of identifying privacy practices and violations was the impetus for the privacy initiative in the first place. For regular customers, reading pages of jargon about privacy rules is an unreasonable burden. Reviewing simplified categories, once they find them, might be easier. But is it really sufficient to give consumers the tools they need to make the privacy choices that seem optimal to them?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How effective are Apple’s new privacy labels? And what are they effective at doing, precisely?
  2. Go to the App Store and review a few of the apps that are on your phone (if you have an iPhone). What did you learn? Does the information leave you wanting to change how you use the apps or which apps you keep on your phone?

Source: Brian X. Chen, “What We Learned from Apple’s New Privacy Labels,” The New York Times, January 27, 2021